If there's one sure way to capture the attention of the usual suspects in the press, it's to highlight the problems of women with high-powered careers, as billionaire Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has done.
In her Ted talk three years ago and now in a book that has received lavish attention, Sandberg laments that women "are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story ... 190 heads of state -- nine are women. Of all the people in parliaments in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top ... 15, 16 percent."
Sandberg appears not to be complaining about sexism so much as encouraging women to stop sabotaging their own success. Studies show that women are less likely to attribute their success to their own merit than are men, she reports. They are less likely to ask for raises or to negotiate for better terms in a job search. When they are successful, they are less likely than comparable males to be considered "likable."
Those statistics ring true to me. I've noticed both from personal experience and from studies that women tend to judge themselves more harshly than men on other matters, too. Women, for example, are less likely than men to consider themselves good-looking. If Sandberg wants to agitate to help women think better of themselves and get the raises that are due to them, good for her.
But that's not the whole agenda. Though denying that she is judging any woman's decisions and acknowledging that she struggles with the work/family balance every day, there is a planted assumption in her advice to women that work should prevail over family. Noting the small numbers of women in top executive positions at Fortune 500 firms, Sandberg says, "The problem, I am convinced, is that women are dropping out."
There is no doubt that women drop out, though Sandberg neglects to consider the 30 percent small business owners who are women. Many more women than men prefer part-time work or no work when their children are young. There is doubt as to whether this constitutes a problem. Women students at Yale Law School, for example, have published a guide to top law firms that rates them on family-friendliness. As students, these women, who can certainly command some of the highest salaries in the American economy, are thinking ahead about finding workplaces that permit flexibility.