Writing about powerful women

The media should stop treating Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer as though they represent their whole gender

Why do we in the media try to make some women standard bearers for all women? That’s the problem, really, that underlies the backlash — and the backlash’s backlash — to the leadership of tech executives Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer.

Sandberg and Mayer are very different women who became targets of media attention in the past month for very different reasons. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of a new feminist manifesto to be published Monday called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, was first excoriated by Jodi Kantor of The New York Times, who wrote, “Even her advisors acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000 square-foot-house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.”

Others then piled on. The Daily Mail called her (not yet launched) project, accompanying the book, to help women become more of a force in the workplace a “failure”; in The Washington Post, writer Melissa Gira Grant said that Sandberg’s “social movement” was merely a ploy to heighten her own brand.

Mayer, the new CEO of the struggling Yahoo, became the focus of negative attention when she told her workforce that they would no longer be able to work from home because “communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” There was an immediate outcry. Lisa Belkin at The Huffington Post opined that the ban “is the exact opposite of what CEOs should be doing.” Even our northern neighbors joined the fray: the Toronto Star called Mayer “a mom we love to hate.” The idea is that Mayer, a mother herself, betrayed mothers — and women — by clamping down on the flexibility they need to both parent and work. (It was made worse by Mayer’s declaration in Makers, a new PBS documentary on the women’s movement, that she’s not a feminist.)

Said a column in USA Today, “Mayer and Sandberg, even if they have good intentions, are setting back the cause of working mothers.”

Why? Because they have the resources to both work and be parents, and they do it with seeming ease, which makes other moms feel guilty. I should add - they are being lumped together only because they are both women executives.

In all these critiques, the executives were held to impossibly high standards. They are expected to be successful — and, in Mayer’s case, turn around an ailing company — while representing the interests of all women everywhere.

Men don’t face this kind of scrutiny. A man who writes an inspiring business book meant to help people get ahead at work doesn’t have his wrist slapped because he’s promoting himself as well — of course he is! And a man who tries to change a failing corporate culture is more likely to be lauded as courageous than accused as cowardly, as Mayer was.

That’s why I was happy to see the backlash to the backlash this week. I’m not usually on the side of Katie Roiphe, but I was with her when she wrote in Slate, “Liberals want more female CEOs. But they hate the ones that exist.” She added, “But why should Marissa Mayer have some special responsibility to nurture her employees with a cozy, consummately flexible work environment just because she is a woman? Isn’t her responsibility to run a company according to her individual vision?” Katha Pollitt, although not a fan of Mayer, said of Sandberg’s book, “After this storm of outrage … the book itself comes as a pleasant surprise … . She cites study after study showing that the deck is stacked against women: discrimination is real, the old boy network is real, the difficulties of raising children while working full time are real.”

Perhaps the crux of this is that covering personalities is easy (and gets clicks), but covering issues is hard. Mayer may or may not have made the right decision for Yahoo, but her being a woman has nothing to do with it. (Interestingly, the more details that come out about Yahoo’s former culture — like employees who used their work-at-home time to run other businesses — the smarter she seems). Sandberg is a feminist and she wrote her book to help women advance in their careers, but let’s focus on the quality of her arguments instead of whether she wears Prada boots.

As Michael Lewis said in Vanity Fair, “If Sheryl Sandberg were a man, no one would think twice about her career… . Alas, Sheryl Sandberg is not a man, and so her career is not just a bunch of jobs she happens to have held but a public statement.” This is exactly right, and it applies to Marissa Mayer, too — sometimes a business leader is just trying to, well, help their business — or trying to pass on knowledge they think might help others. Not everything every woman does is a social statement. And it shouldn’t have to be.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , ,