Is Sheryl Sandberg really an inspiration for working mothers?

Earlier last month Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, admitted that she’s been leaving work at 5:30pm to be able to have dinner with her kids. While she’s been doing this for many years, it is only in the last two years that she felt comfortable about admitting it publicly.

The fact that this admission made headlines brings to light the huge hidden costs and informal penalties associated with choosing flexible hours, even if they are on your company’s official books. Sandberg was widely lauded for making this public admission, but it must be noted that she only did so at a stage in her career where she may be considered ‘unpenalisable’.

Sandberg has made it her mission to support women. She frequently gives speeches about promoting female leaders and what women must do to take responsibility for their own careers.

In her iconic speech at TEDWomen in 2010 titled Why we have too few women leaders’, viewed over 1.3 million times, she suggests three things that women must do to make it to the top. First, they must ‘sit at the table’ in the literal but also the figurative sense: Very often women stay on the sidelines and are not as proactive in seeking opportunities or negotiating their careers as their male counterparts. Next she asks women to choose partners in life who will support them in not only their career choices but will also split housework and childcare responsibilities. And finally, Sandberg argues that women stop playing the game way too early, sometimes when they’re even just trying for a baby. They need to keep their ‘foot on the gas pedal’ until it is truly and finally time to leave.

In this talk, while she admits there are institutional and external barriers that women face, she only wants to focus on what women can do themselves. This has been Sandberg’s unwavering stance at other forums as well and is summed up well in what she said in her Commencement Speech at Barnard College last year,

Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal.

As such, Sandberg proposes what some have called “a private solution to a public problem”. Her efforts seem to be targeted to a certain elite group, or dare I say class, of women.

Sandberg’s uplifting and inspiring speeches have touched the hearts of many women. She herself is a living testament to the merits of her advice: If you’re determined, ambitious and don’t give up, you can make it to the top.

However, we have to acknowledge that other factors of a woman’s circumstances also come into play than just her attitude. Women from disadvantaged backgrounds, working low-income jobs, or from ethnic minorities are given less chances and opportunities in life. Or stated in the language of Sandberg’s TED talk; they are never presented with a table to sit at; they have less choice in the matter of choosing a partner who will enter into 50-50 household and childcare responsibilities (or like Sandberg, be able to afford a full-time nanny); and less choice of when, or even if, to leave their jobs.

Given women’s differing circumstances, a change in attitude or behaviour can be quite inspirational for some women, but it may not be enough for others. It only addresses one side of the problem by not taking into account systemic reasons and structural causes for women’s career struggles.

Factors such as legally instituted paid maternity and family leave, childcare support, provisions for breastfeeding at the workplace and health insurance cover are vitally important to support women, especially mothers, in their careers.

By not addressing these external factors, Sandberg puts the onus of responsibility on the women themselves. Women can continue to play the game as hard as they can, but they won’t be able to overcome what Sandberg calls a ‘stalled revolution’ until the playing field is levelled.

Structural and institutional factors determine the ‘choices’ women can make in their lives. For example, take the issue of maternity or family leave. The United States is one of the few developed countries where workers are not guaranteed paid family leave, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Failing its families: Lack of paid leave and work-family supports in the US”. HRW noted,

“Having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunisations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers”.

In admitting that there is no such thing as a work-life balance for working mothers, Sandberg famously said that she used to pump breast milk while on conference calls at Google. While this admission shows that things are not easy when you’re juggling a high-powered career with family life, the fact that she was able to do so was a privilege and not a legally guaranteed right that other women in her country could also take advantage of.

Compare this to a low-income worker in the US who was interviewed by the Human Rights Watch in relation to their above-mentioned report. This woman was denied a place to pump breast milk for her baby when she returned to work after a six-week unpaid maternity leave. She had been mistreated by her employer during her pregnancy, did not have any health insurance and was later even denied time off for medical appointments for her sick baby. It is no surprise then that she suffered from acute postpartum depression. Would it have made a difference in her circumstances if this woman had taken on Sandberg’s 3-pronged career advice?

Sandberg is right about the fact that individual attitudes and choices are vitally important to help women succeed in their careers. Unfortunately they are not enough. These must be accompanied by societal changes, policies and laws that support women in the workplace, especially those who are less privileged.

Sheryl Sandberg has inspired countless women to seek ‘real equality in the workforce’. Frequently listed as one of the most powerful women in the world, Sandberg has the massive success and public leverage combined with her charming personality to achieve incredible advancements for women.

If she truly wants to see women leaders at the top, she must concern herself with women who are at the bottom.

This article was first published in the Express Tribune on 12 May 2012. You can find it here.

Vote for BLISS!

Something must have really moved or inspired me to come out of my blog-writing hibernation. A friend of mine shared an email about an amazing initiative BLISS started by a young Pakistani woman, Saba Gul, that aims to get working girls back into school. Reading about Saba’s project and the innovative ways in which she’s promoting it has really inspired me as I also share the dream of starting something of my own that makes a difference to people’s lives.

Saba (middle) with two talented girls whose handiwork has been converted into beautiful handbags to be sold in the market

BLISS is running a pilot in Attock with 25 Afghan refugee girls who were previously forced to work for up to 14 hours a day at carpet looms to economically support their families. BLISS enables these girls to attend school while gaining important income-generating skills, such as embroidery lessons, and earning a daily wage at the same time. Their handiwork is then professionally converted into trendy handbags that will be sold on the market. This approach encapsulates the BLISS mantra of “Education. Entrepreneurship. Empowerment”.  BLISS will launch its first range of 60 handbags in March 2011.

Girls attending school

Saba started the initiative while she was working in the US, where she graduated from MIT in Computer Science and Economics. Her project has already gained recognition in the US through various competitions and was recently invited by Secretary Hillary Clinton to a US State Department iftaar dinner. She is now moving to Pakistan to work full time on her dream project and make BLISS into a sustainable and viable social enterprise. That’s real commitment!

Saba’s project has been selected as 1 of 45 finalists from all over the world by the Unreasonable Institute for a competition. The winners of the competition will get a chance to attend a 6-week program to take their initiatives to the next level through rigorous skills training, guidance from expert mentors, access to seed capital and a chance to pitch to investors in Silicon Valley. The 25 lucky winners are chosen by popular voting. Here’s the catch though: in order to vote for an entrepreneur, you have to put your money where your mouth is and donate a very small amount towards their initiative. In fact the maximum donation allowed is only $10. So in fact at least 800 people would have to sponsor your project in the quickest possible time in order for it to win, demonstrating it’s popular appeal.

Take out a few minutes of your time and vote for this truly innovative and inspiring initiative!


Two weeks ago I started a course called Self Expression and Leadership Programme (SELP) with Landmark Education. Some of you may have heard more than you want to know about Landmark from both Asim and me (hehe, you know who you are!) and others may not even know that since April of this year I’ve done various courses with them.

I used to be one of those people who thought personal development books were well-meaning but useless at best and Western new-age crap at worst. But I’ve always been self-critical, interested in ‘improving/fixing’ myself and enjoyed learning in an interactive group setting. So yes when Asim first mentioned Landmark courses to me, I was intrigued but as a student had no money at the time. He had done a series of courses with Landmark Education 4 years ago (way before I met him) and I remember the very first time we spoke on the phone, he mentioned the courses and how much he had gained from them in terms of how he communicated, the way he understood people and even success at work. Then I sort of forgot about them until this year when a friend convinced Asim to do another of the courses, the Introduction Leaders Program. I went to one of the guest events and registered.

I did the Landmark Forum in April and then the Advanced Course in July. I also attended a series of free Seminar sessions available to graduates. The courses are designed in such a way that you start with yourself and then move outwards at the level of small groups to large communities. We live in growing concentric circles of connectedness (from self to relationships to family to friends to community to country to the world). The course I’m doing now is a three month leadership course in which you design and implement a community project. The idea is that by contributing to others you also gain a lot yourself and that in a way is real leadership. I’ll tell you in another post what my project is but just to let you know I’m exploring how I can help flood survivors in Pakistan.

Landmark is one of those things, that when you’re out of it you think ‘oh who needs these courses? Why can’t people fix their lives themselves?’ or you’re slightly embarrassed sharing with others because you think they’ll think you’re messed up or weird. But guess what? Everyone is messed up and weird in their own way. Every single person out there. And that’s not weird. This really hit me while doing my Landmark courses. People are just people. Whether they are young or old, men or women, straight or gay, black or white or whatever. In the courses, we had people who you think are so successful or experienced or drop-dead gorgeous or ‘completely sorted’ and then you realize, they’re dealing with their own set of issues. Even those who think they have no issues! :) This of course doesn’t mean that we only connect with people at the level of our ‘issues’ but what this opened up for me was that I became more forgiving of others and less intimidated. Instead of building up walls between myself and others, I was able to see them as just people with their strengths and weaknesses- just like me.

Anyway, every time I go to Landmark I’m reminded of who I say I want to be in life. And sometimes it’s good to get that reminder. We’re all so busy with our lives, who takes the time out for personal reflection and evaluation? How many times do we sincerely make promises that we actually know how to keep? Why do we break our word, especially to ourselves? And when we do, how do we restore integrity so that others, and especially we ourselves, can believe in the person we say we are? Sometimes it can be trivial things like resolving to sort out your cluttered drawer or over-committed calendar. And sometimes it can be something more significant like being there for a friend who needs you but you don’t know ‘how’ to help her or making an effort to speak to a family member who you just don’t know what to say to or when the love isn’t there.

Being at Landmark allows me to feel inspired and motivated to do something with my life. It makes me want to connect with family and friends. It pushes me to get organised, punctual and be true to my word- to others and myself. And what that results in is a peace of mind, freedom from resentment or regret, and happiness. As Ina Garten says when something is particularly yummy, “How bad can that be?” :D

Why are we here?

God made us his ‘Khalifa’ i.e. vicegerent on earth. In chapter 2 God relates a very interesting conversation with Angels regarding our role in this world.

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلاَئِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً قَالُواْ أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاء وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” (2:30)

The term ‘vicegerent’ is defined in the dictionary as “someone appointed to exercise all or some of the authority of another, esp.. the administrative powers of a ruler.” Our appointment as “vicegerent on earth” is a very powerful one, and sounds daunting if you look at it in this way.

Most of us fail to recognise this responsibility and most importantly the potential we have to fulfil this responsibility.

The verse also highlights our weaknesses that, Angels warned God, would hinder us in fulfilling this responsibility. We know well, how to do mischief and bloodshed on earth.

The verse made me think how well informed the Angels were, about this new creation and it’s characteristics. The second part of their statement that “whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” hints to the fact that they were also very disappointed by this appointment and were probably expecting themselves to be given a chance.

But there was something they missed out on. The role probably required a lot more than just praises and glorification. The verse ends with God’s response: “I know what ye know not.” – mention of the term “Knowledge” and that is exactly what got us in this role.

Among us there are many who represent our weaknesses and we see this in wars and destruction all around us but at the same time we have this amazing potential to do God’s work on earth. That mean a lot.

Everything that happens on Earth is within our remits, even the natural disasters I would think. If we are God’s vicegerent on earth, are we doing justice to this role? why are we subservient to the wrath of the earth? Something to think about!