Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg: Women Workers Need to Keep Their Hands Up

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 10:10 AM EST

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg created a stir by urging women to get ahead by staying the course and by getting braver about self-promotion.

At December's TEDWomen conference, she outlined three changes that women should make to position themselves for top leadership jobs.
  • Have a truly supportive spouse
  • Trumpet your successes
  • Don't coast in anticipation of the mommy track
Sandberg proved herself a masterful communicator connecting with the audience with an anecdote about an internal Facebook meeting in which she'd given a presentation and then told the group that she'd only answer two questions. But after the two questions, the men kept their hands up and Sandberg continued to answer their questions. She only realized what had happened later that day when a young woman in the company commented that her own takeaway from the meeting was to "keep her hand up."

Yes, but.

Here is the problem with Sandberg's argument: Corporate cultures get in the way of women's progress. Sandberg's right to encourage women to keep working full-throttle and not sidetrack themselves with what-if's. You want to get as far as you can before you have to make the mommy track decisions.

But women downshift because they can't see far enough ahead in their organizations to figure out how their hard work will pay off right away, not just for the long term. They can see that it will take years to get to the senior vice president or partner -- so long that it doesn't seem unreasonable to add another couple years due to mommy tracking. But what about the step after next? What are the trade-offs for pushing for that job -- or the payoff for taking on a risky assignment now in hopes of latticing over to a new department? Are those jobs worth hanging around for?

Likewise, Sandberg cites well-known research that women achievers are less 'likeable' than men with identical accomplishments. Women typically credit others for some of their achievements, unlike men, who typically assume all the glory is quite due, thank you very much. Yet, this tendency also invokes one of womens' great strengths: the ability to lead by consensus and to get buy-in from stakeholders.
Both situations -- self- sidetracking and self-promoting - are very difficult to navigate. Well-designed women's initiatives provide the affirming context that neutralizes other elements of corporate cultures that perpetuate the very problems that Sandberg cited.

Women don't like to go it alone. That one dynamic explains Facebook's meteoric growth - and one of the great advantages that women bring to workplace leadership. Sandberg missed a huge opportunity to put women's challenges in the context of one of their greatest strengths.
  • Joanne Cleaver

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