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From the mommy wars: Well-meaning condescension

  • Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. (Associated Press)

To get somewhere in this circular debate over women and work, we need to get three women in the same room: Anne-Marie Slaughter, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg.

Slaughter quit her high-ranking job at the State Department to return to academia at Princeton University and wrote a long magazine article about how women can't have it all. Mayer is the new mother and chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc. who dissed maternity leave as if it were for sissies and called all employees back to the office or else.

And then there is Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, whose new book tells women how to be as successful as she is — or, alternatively, why they're jerks for not being as successful as she is. The takeaway from “Lean In,” which is already a best-seller, is that you can succeed if you would just stop undermining yourself, assume a better posture, raise your hand and speak up.

If it were that easy, there would be no market for Sandberg's book 50 years after Betty Friedan laid down the first marker. Now there is a heavy shelf of advice tomes and dispatches from the mommy wars, yet a few truths remain self-evident: Women have babies, usually during their peak career-climbing years. There are only 24 hours in a day, a fact no legislation can change (although thanks for the Family and Medical Leave Act). And though men become fathers, they don't feel — operative word feel — the same pull to be at home with their children that the women who bear them do.

Not that Sandberg's from-on-high perspective isn't interesting. Who could quibble with her admonition to shed the self-doubt that holds so many women back? As she notes, women in her class at Harvard are much less accomplished than the men; only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. She gives us a glimpse into the boardroom, and it turns out that when the door closes, they are saying exactly what you might expect: They find assertive women bossy and assertive men inspiring, and see female likability as inversely proportional to female success.

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