I recently heard a crazy rumor about President Obama. According to unnamed sources, he works from home. In fact, these sources claim that throughout his first term most of his time in Washington was spent in his great, big, taxpayer-funded White House, despite the fact that his staff is expected to leave their homes and families and go into an office. Strangely, I have yet to see one outraged article about the president's work arrangement. Not even from FOX News. But this past week I have seen countless articles lambasting a CEO for requesting employees come into the office, while this CEO enjoys the luxury of a built-in corner office nursery.
The CEO in question is Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, who based on her recent press coverage can't seem to do anything right, at least in the eyes of media and her most ardent critics, who seem to be comprised largely of women. She's not alone. Headlines blared that Facebook big Sheryl Sandberg has struggled to establish early grassroots support for efforts to take the message of her girl power tome, Lean In, nationwide.
When reading about some of the criticism lobbed at Mayer and Sandberg, I couldn't silence a nagging question in my head: what if they were men?
Picture a young, brash, Silicon Valley male hotshot, announcing that he would be building an inner-office nursery, because he did not want to sacrifice bonding with his newborn and helping his spouse, for the sake of his corporate pursuits? Why do I get the feeling he would be met with lots of "Awww. What a great guy and dad!" He would probably enjoy some adoring profiles in women magazines, and maybe The View. Even if he were requiring other employees to come into the office, it's likely that being seen as an attentive father would soften his image, providing a helpful contrast to his tough, taskmaster, "you-better-come-into-the-office-or-else" persona. But for Mayer, the criticism has been vocal and prolonged. She is perceived as insensitive, and out of touch.
Similarly, if a male senior executive at Google announced that he made a point to have dinner with his children every day, how much would that little detail keep popping up in profiles as proof that despite what a shark some may think he is, he is more grounded than the average exec.
But this is not the case for Sandberg, whose acknowledgment that she makes a point to have dinner with her kids has been met with suspicion in some corners, and derision in others. (A sample comment: "Sandberg has not, to the best of my knowledge, discussed the amount of paid help it takes to keep the whole homefront shebang going. Is Sandberg coming home at 5:30 and cooking dinner? I think not.")
Of course people aren't really mad at Mayer or Sandberg for the reasons they pretend. They are picking at them for the same reason we often feel the need to pick at women like them: They seem perfect and it's infuriating to those of us who don't have lives that feel perfect.
Women are often taught from a young age that we are pretty or smart, fashionable or intellectual, sexy or serious. Sandberg and Mayer appear to be all of the above. They also appear to be happily married with kids. Oh, and did I mention that they're rich? Very rich.
As I discussed with some of my fellow attendees at BET's awe-inspiring girl power extravaganza, Leading Women Defined, this week, it's too simplistic to say that women are just jealous of them. It's more complex than that. Their lives seem to be working for them in a way that the lives of very few women, or people in general, are working. It's like they cracked a secret code, and if the rest of us can't seem to crack it, we have to make ourselves feel better by saying they either took a shortcut, or are being unfair in some other way, or we have to look for a crack in their armor; some error we can latch onto for dear life and criticize. Because if we don't the alternative is too depressing: admitting that maybe we just don't have what they do to make it all the way to the top.
I will say however, that I do believe Sandberg and Mayer have brought some of the criticism on themselves for not being honest. I applaud their success and admire them. They truly seem to have it all. But they are being dishonest in not using their perch at the very top to admit to the rest of us down below that not all of us can have it all, or even have as much as they do.
In her widely read article for The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," Ann-Marie Slaughter noted that, "At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke's memorial service, one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or to watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke's absence was the price of saving people around the world -- a price worth paying." Slaughter takes issue with the idea that we lift up such personal sacrifice on the part of leaders as more admirable than a personal life filled with healthy familial and personal relationships. But as opposed to continuing this age-old either/or dichotomy that you're either a great parent or a great professional, but rarely both, perhaps we just begin to accept that regardless of gender, there are certain professions and roles that are simply incompatible with being an involved and present parent. Not to mention an involved and present girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse. And maybe it's time that we acknowledge that it's not necessarily your boss, your company, or society's job to fix that fact.
Ask some CIA operatives how well that job is working out for their personal lives. (Or check out a character from Homeland.) But what's the alternative? Do we say that regardless of the war on terror every person who works for the CIA should have a flexible schedule to enjoy more family time and "have a life"? That's not realistic. Perhaps instead we should just say at the outset to those choosing to enter certain career paths: "Your personal life will be nonexistent for this amount of time, but if you are ambitious enough then it's possible the payoff will really be worth it down the road. But sorry, no guarantees."
Such payoffs may be in the form of monetary rewards, which both Sandberg and Mayer have enjoyed, or having a more fulfilling personal life one day. For instance, President Obama enjoys regular dinners with his family now that he works from home, after years spent often away from them on the campaign trail. And after years of toiling Sandberg and Mayer finally get to enjoy the fruits of their labor too, office nursery, nightly familial dinners and all. They should be willing to admit that not every woman or man will get to the same place. It may be because of sexism, or a glass ceiling, or it may simply be because if you want to make it in a certain profession you have to accept that you won't see your kids often, or ever, and you may not have much of a romantic life, and you weren't willing to make those sacrifices. You may not be able to "have it all," until you reach the very top like Sandberg and Mayer, at which point other women will then nitpick you within an inch of your life. But Sandberg and Mayer should also be willing to admit that it's not their job to make the lives of every woman who works for them or admires them from afar easier. Because just by kicking open new doors for us with their stilettos, they already have.