Is Sheryl Sandberg really an inspiration for working mothers?

Published: May 12, 2012

Sheryl Sandberg has inspired countless women to seek ‘real equality in the workforce’. PHOTO: REUTERS

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.

Follow Tamreez on Twitter @tamreezinam                                                                                                  

Tamreez Inam

Tamreez Inam

A freelance international development consultant who having graduated from McGill and Oxford University, worked for organisations such as Oxfam and the United Nations. Tamreez volunteers with Inspire Pakistan- a campaign to promote inspirational initiatives in Pakistan". She tweets @tamreezinam (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Abdul Moiz

    Women should work,have lifelong careers.If half the country’s population sits at home all day without making economic contribution,the nation loses out.We have in our society girl who have done graduation,a lot have done Masters as well but after doing graduation they choose to sit at home like housewives and waste away their education.They could have better contributed to the country’s advancement by having careers.If you are uneducated then it makes sense to sit at home but those women who are educated are sadly just wasting it away at home.Recommend

  • Waqas Ali

    One more thing which she said and Pakistani women should really care:

    ‘The Most Important Career Choice you’ll Make Is Who You Marry.’
    -Sheryl Sandberg


  • hina


  • Imran

    Who gives a hoot about her?Recommend

  • Saira Khan

    The government should change its policy with regards to giving out subsidized education to medical students.Now,the majority of medical students are females but the majority of working doctors coming into the field are still male.The vast majority of female MBBS graduates choose to become housewives and waste the taxpayer’s money that the govt. has spent on them by giving them subsidised medical education.

    Why is the public’s hard earned money being wasted on women who don’t utilise their MBBS degree on helping the public.These women are just MBBS pass but love to call themselves doctors,they are not doctors,doctors are those who practise medicine,who actually work.I’ve seen medical students who say we are just studying medicine so that we are able to get a rich husband.Why is the public’s tax money being wasted so that a few women can land rich husbands?? Why are we creating an army of MBBS PASS women who never work.Recommend

  • Humayun Asif

    Women who work,especially in Muslim countries like ours are the real heroes.They put up with so much misogyny and institutionalised bigotry and discrimination.Our society doesn’t approve of
    women working because it thinks of it as an attack on a male dominance in our society.Then the working women have to put up with the religious fanatics who harass and irritate working women all the time by constantly telling them that they are committing a sin by working ,that they will go to hell by stepping outside the chaar diwari of their houses.
    And on top of everything working women have to contend with jealousy from their male colleagues.I’ve worked in different multinational companies in my career but the one constant that has been there is that the men can never accept that a female colleague of theirs advanced or got a promotion because of her competence,the men unfortunately,always cast aspersions on a female colleagues character and never accept that a woman is intelligent enough,is competent enough to deserve a promotion.And this is the mentality of men in multinationals where supposedly the best and most well-educated men get employment.What will be the mentality of the less educated male workforce>Recommend

  • Hira Nazir

    @Waqas Ali:

    Yes,misogynistic men do love such comments and lines and try to constantly make expose women to such demeaning dialogues which help further perpetuate patriarchy in a society that already exists to maintain man’s dominance in every sphere of life.
    Getting married is not and should never be the most important decision of a woman’s life.Finding a husband shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of any girl’s life.A woman’s life should never revolve around appeasing the men of her family.Recommend

  • Sadia Amjad

    @Saira Khan:

    You’ve raised a very valid point.why does our government continue to spend money on cheap medical education for girls who will never work as doctors,who won’t serve the masses through their medical knowledge.Those girls getting admissions to medical colleges must be made to sign a contract that after completing their education they will have to work for ‘X’ number of years,failing which they will have to pay a financial penalty for the huge amount of tax revenue of the public that they have wasted.Recommend

  • Farah bawany

    @Hira Nazir:

    Sadly,in our backward society,small girls are brainwashed from birth that the sole purpose of their lives is to find a rich husband and to obey everything blindly that their father and brothers say.Our girls are taught from birth that their main purpose in life will be to serve the demands of the men of the family and to obey like slaves everything that the men of the family order.
    Ours is a society created to benefit men and to reinforce their position in society as superior beings.Recommend

  • alicia

    @Saira khan

    It is sad though because it takes an awful amount of brains and hardwork to get into medical college in Pakistan. Sadly the smartest of our nation i.e. the women in medical colleges are wasting their brains and not utilizing their talents for helping others.Recommend

  • geeko

    @Waqas Ali:
    The article is about the socio-economic uplift of women and you come up with an institution as trivial in that regard as marriage, seriously… I have in my own family female relatives working/studying (one recently obtained a Master degree in Biochemistry) without even caring about who they’ll marry, as the society where we/they come from (may be different from the others part of Pakistan), the sexual segregation do not give opportunities to even think about that – so, yeah, from our society’s POV, intellectual emancipation and economic independence are more important attributes than having a choice when it come to marriages.

    @Saira Khan:
    Just imagine all that skills spent for the country… :/Recommend

  • Huma

    @saira khan… its poss they were stopped from working :/
    @humayoun asif… totally agree.Recommend

  • Big Rizvi

    Stop crying about women’s rights and make me a sandwich woman! … Eh, on a lighter note, don’t tie your success to one man or a patriarchal society like ours, believe in yourself and learn to flip the bird to the religious fanatics and soon you shall be in nirvana! :)Recommend

  • Saima

    Taking care of the home is not doing nothing. It’s the most important job out there. Women should demand men to respect that rather than just leave it because they don’t get respect. Women need to stop making men their role models. Just cause men work doesn’t mean it’s th most respectable thing. Seriously.

    Y’all need to look at how the increase of women in the workforce has affected American life in the past fifty years to get an idea how it will impact Pakistani life if we do the same. Jumping of the cliff in suit, eh.Recommend

  • http://NY Haris

    Interesting article Tamreez! One thing to consider for future discussion would be the tension between a) championing gender equality in the workplace and b) being pigeon-holed into the identity of the female colleague rather than simple a colleague.Recommend

  • http://NY Haris

    Interesting article Tamreez! One thing to consider for future discussion would be the tension between a) championing gender equality in the workplace and b) being pigeon-holed into the identity of the female colleague rather than simply a colleague.Recommend

  • Tamreez

    @Abdul Moiz, you raise a valid point that half of the country’s population should not be confined at home. Especially women who are educated should make a contribution through the workforce. However, I still believe those who choose to be homemakers are also making a valid (if undervalued and unpaid) contribution to society. Above all else, women should have a choice.

    @Waqas Ali –You’ve shared an interesting quote from Sandberg. It does become absolutely crucial for a woman if her husband supports her in her career or not. So I agree with Sandberg on that. Unfortunately, many women in our society are not given that much choice in finding a supportive spouse. Wanting to work is still considered either an economic nessity or a luxury. It is not seen as something that women may want to do because it makes them fulfilled human beings. Many ‘rishta’ families still demand that their future daughter in law should not work. And many girls will compromise on this if otherwise the rishta is good.Recommend

  • Tamreez

    @ Saira Kham– hmm I’m not sure how the comment is relevant to my article. But my response to you would be instead of criticizing women who drop out after MBBS, we should look into the reasons of why this happens and try to remove those causes. I disagree that women undergo the rigours of medical college simply to land a rich husband. That is insulting to many women.

    My own mother went to medical college but could not finish her course because she got married and had children while studying. This was of course due to the pressures our society puts on women to get married and have children at an early age. She may not say she regrets this but I know that it is an unfulfilled ambition for her.

    We need to be empathetic to women and try to support them. Related to the point I made in the article, we need to remove institutional and external barriers that prevent women from succeeding in their careers. Changing societal attitudes about ealy marriage, allowing women to practice medicine and support with raising children would all go a long way in letting women become doctors not just MBBS pass, as you say.Recommend

  • Tamreez

    @Humayun Asif and @Saima — agreed

    @Haris, thanks! :) You’ve raised an important point about women being regarded as female colleagues rather than as colleagues. Unfortanately, this sort of tokenism is very rampant. I think this is in fact one of the reasons Sandberg opposes affirmative action. She has been criticized for not advocating to have women on Facebook 11 member all-male board. Her response is that if token women we added, it may seem like they didn’t deserve to be there. I don’t totally agree with her viewpoint (how can there be no woman in all of america who deserves to join the board on merit?) but it is an interesting point nonetheless. Recommend

  • Tin Tin

    @Saira Khan:

    Women do not “choose” to go through the rigorous drilling that is medical school and then never utilise their training. There are solid, real structural forces that kick in to prevent educated women from working; our society expects the woman to be 100% responsible for child-care and housework, there are still huge numbers of men who will not marry a working-woman, just to name a few such issues.

    Instead of blaming women for wasting their education, we as a society need to address the fundamental causes behind such trends. Again, no one actively “chooses” to put in hours upon hours of work on a profession degree without the hope of being able to use it. This is an unfortunate position that our women are forced into.Recommend