Are We Being Too Harsh on Women Execs Like Mayer and Sandberg?

So Marissa Mayer gets attacked for taking a 2-week maternity leave and building a nursery next to her office, yet a short while back Anne-Marie Slaughter was getting taken to task for leaving her executive level position in government because she couldn’t balance work and family?

Personally, I am relieved that Mayer is finding ways to make a high-level career and motherhood work. I would not have been able to stomach the gleeful gloating that would have erupted had she had her child and then stepped down.  When Mayer’s selection at Yahoo! was announced, the big question was whether a new mom could handle that level of responsibility.  And it appears that she can, with an ample support system and a ton of resources.  Just like men do.

Frankly, I am little dismayed about all the outrage over her nursery and 2 week maternity leave.  I don’t read about those things and feel like she’s doing or getting anything out of the ordinary for a high level executive.  But I also don’t internalize comments like “My baby is easy” as “and if yours isn’t, you’re a terrible mom” or equate a 2 week maternity leave with hating on maternity leave.  Most of the vitriol is coming from other women – why?

Katie Roiphe had a valid point when she pointed out that liberals (her word, not mine) are always pushing for more female executives and yet look at the treatment of Mayer and Sandberg.  Who wants to be a feminist executive when you get attacked for being successful?  Why are we not supporting these women for making it, especially in the male-dominated tech field?

I am not a high level executive, as I have time to write for this blog and spend an incredible amount of hours reading feminist-y stuff on the internet.  But I have worked directly under high level executives before.  In that organization, there were 4 male executives and three female executives.  Each of those 7 people easily spent twelve to fourteen hours in the office and worked every weekend.  All had a bunch of advanced degrees.  Traveled at the drop of a hat.  Subsisted on coffee and bars.  Scheduled meetings all day with no lunch break. That was what it took to do that job.


Executives are elites.  Very few people can perform at their level.  Fewer choose to do it because depending on the industry, your quality of life sucks even if you’re making a lot of money.  There is no 3 month maternity leave for many executives even if their company provides it and supports it.  But if you’re someone like Mayer, you can handle that with the resources you have available.  As a feminist community, I don’t think we should be judging Mayer’s lack of maternity leave.  We should be talking about the average woman’s shoddy maternity leave.

I don’t think having a small percentage of women executives or members of congress is enough to change the culture of American corporate or political organizations.  It’s not fair to look at Mayer and her revoking her company’s telework policy (or her lack of maternity leave), and claim that female executives behave just like male executives.  It’s like putting a few drops of food coloring into a few gallons of water and expecting it to change color.  We need a critical mass, a tipping point to change culture.  Otherwise, the argument sounds similar to Rush Limbaugh lamenting about how he just doesn’t understand why Hispanics lean Democrat despite the Republicans having Marc Rubio.

As the “token” women executive, Mayer and Sandberg are expected to represent and speak for and to all women.  Generally, if someone is a “representative” to a certain population than there probably isn’t enough of them to show a sincere investment.  Too much of this criticism directed toward Mayer and Sandberg seems unwarranted.

Has this tired discussion about whether women having families and high level careers switched from being about gender to being about class?  Successful women like Mayer and Sandberg are getting labeled as out of touch elites, privileged rich girls, lucky girls who are too full of themselves to see how lucky they really are.   Maybe they are.  However, we seem to be leaning towards this approach towards super successful women, with the exception of Sonia Sotomayer as of late, where their merit is discredited because they have some privilege.

We shouldn’t act like the only reason Mayer and Sandberg are successful just because they are rich or white or grew up middle class.  First of all, we don’t treat men executives this way.  Second of all, plenty of people grow up with that privilege and don’t become executives of major tech companies.  Yes, having those attribute is a privilege and yes, most of the time that makes someone’s life easier and more successful.   And yes, we should identify privilege in the course of discussion.  But are we judging executive women too harshly for having it?

Reading Maureen Dowd’s hypocritical caricature of Sandberg for being self-entitled while giving other women advice reminded me of Phyllis Schlafly’s successful national speaking career where she told women their place was in the home, not having a career.  Really Ms. Dowd? Could you not, perhaps, see just a little bit of yourself in what you wrote?

Have you ever been in a conversation where someone mentions anything that isn’t related to a scarcity of food/water/shelter/democracy and someone responds “Oh, first world problems” in a sarcastic tone and the conversation shuts down because there’s really not a great response to that?  That’s what I feel is going on when we talk about successful women.  When people freaked out about poor women not being able to “lean in” to their careers, did anyone stop to consider that maybe Sandberg wasn’t speaking to that group of women? And that it’s ok if she was only targeting her advice to middle/upper class career women?

Feminism needs to belong to everyone, those who have made it and those who are still working on making it.  Depending on country, race, social status, wealth etc. feminism is going to look different for different groups of women.  I feel like we are losing that perspective, that inclusiveness.  Are women, especially college educated women who have some privilege, not identifying with feminism because it only seems relatable to women who are struggling or belong to women who lack privilege?  By misinterpreting collective action as meaning what works for one woman must work for all women, are we are losing relevancy in a lot of women’s lives?

I want feminism to stay relevant.  I also want more female executives.



Photo credit: jdlasica via photopin cc.

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  • You are right about the critical mass – and about this being a feminist issue.

    People keep trying to tell me ‘childfreedom isn’t a feminist issue! You’re not getting judged!’ Actually, CF women get it just as bad as mothers – if we have no children, we are clearly cold-hearted monsters, out-of-touch bitches who don’t care about anyone but ourselves and who are thus wide open to being overworked and underpaid because we clearly have no reponsibilities or commitments or lives outside of the office; if we are mothers, we are throwing away our educations and careers, letting our teams down, we can’t possibly spend enough time with a child AND be able to be responsible at work, we’re depriving our children by having jobs and sentencing them to poverty if we leave, but we’re letting everyone down if we go part-time to do both.

    The issue is not children vs. no children. It’s not mothers vs. non-mothers. The issue is that the expectations on women are impossible for any of us to meet (even Supergirl might have a hard time with them).

    But when have you ever seen a new father asked ‘so can you still work these hours?’ When has a male politician been told to ‘make an honest man of yourself’ or been told he isn’t in touch because he doesn’t have children? When have men with career ambitions been snorted at because ‘you’ll all get married and have kids and leave anyway’?

    It all comes back to viewing women as nothing more than incubators on legs; if we fulfill the role and yet still dare to be in the highest echelons of society, our children are used to manipulate us into leaving, and if we refuse to be incubators on legs (or are physically unable to have children) we are reminded every day that we are still the Other and we are still stepping out of our oppressor-designated place at the bottom of the ladder.
    It’s sexism all the way down…