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Women's Troubles

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Sandberg sees this phenomenon and appears to condemn it. "Don't leave before you leave," she advises, warning that women forego promotions and more challenging assignments because they're thinking about having kids. This, she argues, makes it less likely that the woman will have a fulfilling job to return to. "I'm here to tell you that once you have a child at home, your job better be really good to go back, because it's hard to leave that kid at home."

Leaving the kid appears to be the goal. But why? "I think a world that was run where half our countries and half our companies were run by women would be a better world."

Maybe. But I haven't noticed that women heads of government or women heads of companies behave differently than men. She's treating her preference as an assumed good. This is one of those little vanities that is permitted to women but would be unacceptable coming from the mouth of a man. No man would dare to suggest, for example, that the field of nursing or teaching would be improved if men were more equally represented.

Isn't it odd that people who exhort us to increase the numbers of women in powerful, high-paying jobs on the speculative grounds that this will be good for the world, discount the roles of women as mothers, which are (usually) of undeniable benefit to their kids? Many women have figured this out. One put it this way: "The world will not be affected one way or another if it has one more accountant during the next decade. But my kids will be profoundly affected by having me raise them."

Many women also find that devoting their time to raising happy, ethical, and responsible children is more rewarding than spending 60 hours a week at the office. Why should they be made to feel that they are letting down the team?

"I hope that ... you have the ambition to run the world," Sandberg told Barnard graduates, "because this world needs you to run it." But the world can wait. Kids can't.

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