More Ways Women Sabotage Themselves

Sheryl Sandberg is right. It's time for women to take a look at themselves

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I’m tired of listening to women who have it all tell a new generation of daughters that it was all a mistake. That they shouldn’t set the bar so high. That they cannot have it all.

They’re wrong. And they’re not remotely helpful.

What makes me qualified to talk about this? I’ve managed a successful career in sexist workplaces and have broken my share of glass ceilings. I’ve raised two wonderful feminist and otherwise morally good sons. I’ve successfully managed personal relationships, some to their natural conclusions. I have never let a setback keep me down. (I disagree with Sandberg’s “no failures” rule, as I believe we have much to learn from heartbreak and healing.) And I’m reinventing success with the best of them.

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So I’m with Sheryl Sandberg. Let’s first dispense with her critics’ favorite tropes:

1. She’s rich, white and privileged, so what does she know? Note that when rich, privileged, white (or black or Hispanic) men write books about how you too can attain success, no one says that their achievements disqualify them as authorities. How do we think Sandberg got rich? She worked hard. She put herself in the right place at the right time. She didn’t let anyone get in her face. She found a mate who supported her ambitions. Her journey provides a terrific role model — for some of us. There are never going to be one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems women face in our sexist world — or any problem, for that matter. So let’s stop using that as an excuse not to do some hard listening.

2. She’s blaming the victims. Why isn’t she talking about government-subsidized day-care programs and the enforcement of laws that equalize pay — two hugely important issues? Because life is full of conversation, and Sandberg has something else to add: it is time for women to look at how they might be sabotaging themselves.

(MORE: Sandberg Exclusive Excerpt: ‘Why I Want Women to Lean In’)

First, what do we mean by “having it all”? I think it means having work and love, the two most important things in life. But what started as a slogan of good cheer and hope has become a lead weight of existential anxiety. Women won’t be able to have all of everything at the same time — no one can — but we can live lives rich in variety, broad in range and high in opportunity. We can be world changers, game changers and diaper changers, just the way men can be. It is much too soon to give up on the ambitions of my generation of feminists.

And so to add to Sandberg’s helpful advice about the workplace, here are a few other things I’ve learned along the way:

Sometimes a Mistake Is Just a Mistake. Women make dumb mistakes at every stage of our lives. Men do too, by the way. But you still have to stay in the game. Say we’ve established careers and raised children. Then we decide to take jobs that require a grueling amount of travel. We move to cities far from our families, like Anne-Marie Slaughter did. And we miss them, they miss us, and the wheels start to fall off the home carriage. This surprises us? 

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This isn’t an example of not having it all or a lesson in why we should give up. It is simply a lousy long-term career choice that’s easily rectified. Sometimes we fail to appreciate the consequences of life-altering decisions — I made this mistake early in my family’s life. But this doesn’t demonstrate that it is impossible to have brilliant careers and raise families.

Yes. Top corporate positions are still disproportionately filled by men, but not necessarily because women are being kept out. Many women have chosen to make compromises along the way — and decided that the old-white-male definition of success (career above all) isn’t necessarily theirs. And that’s fine. Until, of course, it isn’t — but don’t blame the system when that happens.

Appearances Matter. If I saw it once, I saw it a thousand times: young women in my office asking me tearfully why they weren’t being taken seriously by their male colleagues. In some cases, the answer was, That guy is an ass and needs to be straightened out. But in so many cases, sadly, as I listened, I watched a young woman squirming in a skirt that was so short I could see her underwear, a top so tight and cropped that she was spilling out of it, heels so high she tottered to her chair.

(MORERead TIME’s complete coverage on Sheryl Sandberg)

If you think I exaggerate, just spend 20 minutes near the lobby of any major corporation at lunchtime and watch. Or, as recently happened to me, spend some time in the lobby of the Washington Hilton during one or another of the dozens of young-national-leaders meetings and watch the young women convening. The fashion parade was shocking and sad. I have asked these women, Why do you think a highly sexualized presentation of self is appropriate? Surprisingly, I always got what I think of as a feminist’s twisted sister of an answer: because I am liberated to dress any way I want. Because I can be sexy and smart. Because I shouldn’t be judged on my appearance.

There isn’t time to go into the thousand ways this is deeply misguided — and how it derails many women’s careers at the outset. Just for a moment, dwell on the metaphor of thousands of young women strapping their feet into shoes that make it comically difficult for them to move forward at all, to say nothing of keeping pace. Go ahead, be sexy. Make everyone’s day. But don’t expect to be taken seriously. In this, as in so many areas of life, compartmentalization is a key survival tactic. There is a time and place for showing it all. It is called the cocktail hour.

Do the Work. How many women do I know who, having opted completely out of the workplace, (including not doing any serious board or community work) because they could be supported by husbands or  wanted to focus entirely on their families — which is fine, of course, and their business — now want into the workplace? Or are forced to get in because they are facing a divorce or their husbands have lost their jobs?

Many feel that the lack of warm welcome with which they are greeted at the human resources department, at age 45, is proof of how women cannot have it all. They are penalized for having been mothers.

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No. They are just starting over. They’ve decided to take work and love sequentially. But because they’ve been CEO of their homes, many midlife returners feel they should be hired straight into the corner office. But the only way to start at the top is the start your own company.

Work is … work. We log the hours. We log the years. We learn, we grow, we develop skills and knowledge. Those top corporate positions are still difficult for women to break into — but not necessarily because we’re being kept out. We still have to do the work to get there.

(MORE: The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think)

Resilience Above All. I used to think smarts reigned until I watched smart people flame out. Then I thought it was only about connections. That, too, had serious limits. So does luck. When you get right down to it, success in life is about resilience. Every life well-lived is full of failures, both major and minor.

What matters most is how we respond to setback, to challenge, to stress and strain. Being resilient often means finding other paths, other means to the same goal. We do the younger generation a huge disservice by implying that there is a “right” and “wrong” path to success.

If the goal is work and love — having it all — then do what you have to do to protect both those things and be nimble about the intricate ballet of daily life as you balance the demands of both.

(MORE: Caitlin Flanagan: What About the Children?)

Don’t Waste Time Pushing the String. Life is often a string, when it is not a bowl of spaghetti. Pushing on one end of a piece of string does not produce forward movement on the other end. Jobs often become stringy; there are times when no matter how how much willpower or brute force you put into that stringy situation, you simply aren’t going to get ahead. Women are often loyal to a fault; we can be reluctant to acknowledge that things aren’t going to get better. So don’t waste time pushing the string. Move on.

You want to be in front. Pulling. That’s why leaning in is so important. Engage. And stay engaged. Make choices, make mistakes, make moves. Practice resilience. Love. Work. Play. Enjoy, and weep bitter tears. That’s life. We’ve never had it so good. And it is only getting better.

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Sheryl Sandberg