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.

I’m not giving up on my dream :)

Those of you who read my last post know that I was writing in despair. Although I won’t really take back all that I wrote, it is not completely reflective of what I believe in. All of us go through hard times and face disappointments. Perhaps it’s better not to voice your thoughts in the heat of the moment so-to-speak, but it can also be therapeutic. By sharing my gloomy thoughts, I was hoping for others to inspire me and help me get out of that phase. Because I know that if we stop struggling for what we believe in, there is no point to life. So I was really excited today when I came across this talk by Imran Khan titled "Never Give Up on Your Dreams". It was exactly what I needed.

One of the things Imran said really struck me: the higher the goal you set, the bigger the setbacks you should expect. And if you can learn to deal with the setbacks then you’ll be successful. However, one of the common mistakes people make when they come across a setback or hurdle on the path to their dream is to scale back the scope of their goal. Instead of dreaming big, dealing with hurdles and still working towards the goal; people will instead dream small and play it safe. I’ve found myself doing this a lot in life.

In 11th grade after I’d gotten my chemistry results, the marks were pretty good but not stellar. I didn’t really expect praise from the teacher but what I didn’t expect was for her to rebuke me. I still remember what she said: "These aren’t bad marks, but you know you could’ve done better. You never fully apply yourself". In retrospect, I know how true that comment was and still is. I’ve always worked hard, but never in a disciplined or sustained manner and at the first sign of setback, I’m willing to rescale my goal. I’d rather set ‘achievable goals’ and accomplish them than be faced with failure. I’m very risk-averse and nothing scares me more than failure. Let me give you a few small examples. I failed my driving test when I tried for manual. So instead of retaking the manual test, I passed on automatic. When I used to apply for jobs, I would only apply to those where I matched the criteria a 100% and aimed for entry level jobs even though I knew I was capable of more. Asim would keep telling me to apply for more ambitious roles, but I was terrified of rejections. Every rejection I got really dented my self esteem. In relationships, it’s easy to say "oh my family is this way and we can’t be any different" than accepting that relationships need time and attention and sometimes things aren’t always pretty, but you have to keep at it. So over the years, I’ve learnt that things don’t always come easily in life. More importantly no matter how bad they get, they almost always get better. You sometimes just need to sleep on them and then try again.

Although the talk didn’t go a lot into solutions for Pakistan (there’s so much one can squeeze into a 20 minute talk and we’ve heard Imran Khan speak about his policies on many other forums), one of the things that rang true was when Imran said there is a lot of potential and talent in Pakistan but "the only problem in our way is apathy". He couldn’t have said it better.

So in the context of the last post I wrote, I haven’t given up. Yes, it’s true that things do seem pretty bleak in Pakistan at the moment. But I also know that change is possible, even if all we can accomplish is one little thing at a time. If nothing else, I want to be satisfied that I continue to work towards my dream. My friend Hafsa shared this parable with me. Even if you’re not religious, you will definitely appreciate the attitude.

‘When Nimrod built a pyre to burn Allah’s prophet Ibrahim, the hoopoe carried water in its beak and released it onto the flames from above. An onlooker, asked the hoopoe whether it thought the two drops of water would put out the mighty blaze. ‘I don’t know,’ replied the bird. ‘All I know is that when Allah makes a list of those who built this fire and those who tried to put it out, I want my name to be in the second column.’

Untold Stories of Pakistan

I came accross a TED video last week that really inspired me. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, in her fascinating story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, conveyed many key messages. It’s a great reminder for most of us who believe that our story is “true”. Human beings are impressionable thus vulnerable to ideas and beliefs all around us. Sometimes we knowingly deny the existence of multiple stories or view points and would fight till the last breadth to prove our point of view. Our life is full of such single stories and being able to see what’s on the other side of the wall becomes impossible.

One such scary single story these days is about my homeland Pakistan. Sadly majority outside Pakistan, and now even many within, believe in a story that only talks about Terrorism, Extremism, Taliban, corruption – a single story of catastrophe. The persistent narration of this single story from all types of media-storytellers reinforces the point that this is the only world view for Pakistan.

Wherever we go, different versions of the same single story is being discussed – What do you think is the authentic Pakistani story?

Does your story explore the ever expanding research in science and technology; advances in the agriculture and cotton industry; the story of Gwadar port; fast growing independent media; the amazing food industry; the energetic and enthusiastic youth of Pakistan; and the heroics of many forgotten heros like Edhi?

As Chimamanda said, all stories and experiences we go through make us who we are but to only insist on the negative stories is to flatten our experience. We need access to many stories of Pakistan and not rely on the single story echoing in different corners of media all around the world. We need responsible journalism – and I cannot stress more of it’s importance. There is always a positive side to what happens in Pakistan – and please do not hesitate to share that.

Resilient Pakistan is one of many such initiatives, a platform, to share the multiple stories of Pakistan. Please join in and together we can make a difference.

Chris Anderson writing about the Pakistan floods

I just came across blogs about the Pakistan floods by Chris Anderson, the person who founded the amazing TED talks and has over 1.1 million followers on Twitter. For two weeks (August 31 to September 14), he devoted his blog to stories about the floods that don’t get covered by mainstream media, what he referred to as “stories of insight and ingenuity, generosity and heroism”. He writes:

Pakistan has the world’s sixth highest population (170m) and more than a quarter of the country has been deluged. Its people are resourceful and compassionate. There’s an incredible effort on the ground, often led by Pakistanis, that we need to know more about.  If these stories are told, it will chip a hole in the monotone narrative so much of America and the west has adopted of “Pakistan = danger”.

He visited Pakistan with his wife Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, and together they’ve been trying to create awareness and support relief initiatives. So far he’s published over 19 stories and also produced a slideshow with a great soundtrack “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel. Here it is: