Column: Are Female CEOs The Only/Best Role Model For Women?

Are Female CEOs The Only/Best Role Model For Women?
Column by ELENA YANG

Recent news brought to us stories of two prominent female executives of Internet companies, whose decisions and publicity have stirred up some debate and reflection on women’s lives within and outside organizations. 

Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” a semi-autobiography cum new feminism manifesto, offers women advice on how to advance in the corporate world by mostly evoking those dormant internal strengths. 

Sandberg is the current chief operating officer for Facebook. Marissa Mayer, the (fairly) newly appointed CEO of Yahoo and a mother of a still infant son, took the telecommuting option off the table and required all “Yahoos” (how cute!) to be physically present at offices. 

Mayer’s decision wasn’t targeting women, but inevitably shifted the spotlight to many female Yahoos.    

First, Mayer is the CEO with the authority to make decisions as she sees fit. Since any changes are ultimately personal, some employees would always be unhappy. 

I do question the draconian nature of this sweeping change, but it is Mayer’s call. Most Yahoos will adjust eventually and maybe a small number will leave. 

Second, and more importantly, is the purpose of this change. Mayer claims that face-to-face interactions are more conducive to spawning creativity and more effective communications. 

Is this still true in the Internet age, especially in companies that were founded on Internet language? So, I wonder if the decision was based on facts and evidence. Or, was it to demonstrate that she is tough? Like a man!

Sandberg asserts that the next phase for the feminism movement should focus on women’s own internal motivations and strengths, rather than on external factors such as government policies and corporate practices. 

She would have little quarrel with Mayer’s decision, for sure. Currently, the buzz is less about the content of the book than Sandberg’s design for propelling her message forward. 

She’ll receive MSM’s red carpet treatment for the publication of her book when it’s rolled out in mid-March, and she wants to generate many “Lean In Circles,” study groups for professional women across the country. 

She sees herself as someone running a social movement. Not surprisingly, Sandberg has been receiving both enthusiastic support and criticism. 

I say “not surprisingly,” for two reasons: 

  • Women don’t think as one group! (What identity group does?!) This was true during the 1960’s feminism movement. Why should it be different now? 
  • There are never clear-cut, either-or, perspectives in understanding the human psyche. Placing emphasis on only one dimension, internal strength in this case, automatically invites controversy.  

There are many discussion points on both of these two women’s latest developments, but I am sure most of you have gone through most of the pros and cons. What has intrigued me is the point of singling out these two women as role models. 

Is CEO with multimillions in personal assets the only definition of “success?”

Ms. Sandberg has a cadre of staff to help take care of her enormous house and two children. In showing her understanding of what ordinary parents have to deal with, she related the story of finding lice on her daughter on one of her business trips. The discovery was made on the corporate jet. Horror!

Ms. Mayer took only two weeks maternity leave before heading back for work. But she had a nursery built right next to her office, out of her own pocket. 

In what ways are these outliers our role models? In what ways can these superstars find resonance with a single mom raising two children on a medium income, without much assistance for childcare? 

However much strength this single mom can muster to push for her own career and educate her children, she surely would welcome some relief from external policies. 

Even mothers with true equal partners who share all chores would cherish any external assistance they can get. In fact, both parents would appreciate assistance from outside the family. 

Any relief from the daily stress isn’t just for the person under stress; it’s a blessing for all whose lives are touched. 

While Ms. Mayer is talented and decisive, she is not all that different from the traditional male CEOs. That in itself is not a point of contention; but then, why should she be particularly inspiring to other women? 

Does Ms. Sandberg not see the irony of her advocacy for women to rely only on their internal resolve? when the MSM’s lovefest with her has given her attention and the royal treatment for her book and her design of the “social movement?” Who amongst us ordinary women, even with a mountain of internal strength, could have commanded such spotlight?

There has been too much emphasis on celebrity and moneyed culture in our society these days. Want inspiring female role models? Look at that single mom who had to work two jobs to feed her family, but eventually sent all her children to college and got herself promoted to be a supervisor (and finally shed the other job.)

How about a woman, growing up on a farm, who was the first in the family to get a college education and eventually became the “teacher of the year?” Yet another woman, raised by a truck-driving mom, got an MBA while married with a child, worked as a science writer; she had a wicked sense of humor and a heart of gold. 

How about any of the female astronauts? Or female Nobel Laureates? And then, there was a woman who was abused and later abandoned by her husband. She had only a high school education, but managed to raise four daughters on her own, sent them all to college and two got Ph.Ds, and eventually left a small legacy to her children. The list has no end of such unsung heroines. 

Folks, discrimination crumbles in the presence of ego and self-aggrandizement. Pretty women are just as unattractive wearing ego and/or self-aggrandizement as men. 

Meaningful feminism is about being free/freer, rather than being bounded by convention and defined by wealth. 

Emulating the superficial aspects is simultaneously easy, uninspiring and crippling. Dig deeper and soak up the complexity; a little luck from external assistance may go quite a way. 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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