Karen Heller: Cheer, don't criticize, women leaders

FILE - This Feb. 20, 2013 file image released by NBC shows Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appearing on NBC News' "Today" show, in New York to introduce the website's redesign. As Mayer goes about her CEO business of saving Yahoo, which now involves a ban on working from home, a new study shows a significant jump in the number of U.S. employers offering flex and other quality-of-life perks. (AP Photo/NBC, Peter Kramer, file)

On Thursday, during the one history month women get, I leaned in and stayed home to read Sheryl Sandberg's new book. Perhaps Yahoo's Marissa Mayer might not approve.

Lean In, the Facebook COO's manifesto for women's success, is far better than critics who have not read the book think it is. The title - that women should lean in, instead of holding back and avoiding leadership - is the worst thing about it.

To read this smart, clear, well-researched work, to be published Tuesday, is to understand the many mistakes women make on the way to getting stalled and stuck. I made plenty.

Sandberg, 43, is the corporate "it girl" who zoomed to the top at warp speed, though the early signs were not clear. She asked to have "most likely to succeed" omitted from her yearbook, the better to land a prom date. She learned Harvard admitted her "for my personality, not my academic potential."

She is right to worry that women's momentum has stalled, too many skilled professionals opting out of leadership - except parent associations. She told Harvard Business students, "If current trends continue, fifteen years from today, about one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to."

Sandberg hopes to be the executive Oprah, leading a movement through education and conversation groups (leanin.org). Accomplished, wealthy, relatively young, and good-looking, which I believe makes them greater lightning rods, Sandberg and Mayer have come in for a backlash. Their success has been mocked and dissected down to the molecular level, fodder mostly for other women. It's the Mommy Wars: Boardroom Edition.

Named Yahoo CEO at age 37 and five months pregnant, Mayer recently ordered 200 at-home workers back to the office, a move that launched relentless criticism. Yet this might be the right move. Yahoo is in trouble. Mayer found the halls and parking lots too empty to spark creativity and innovation. And she said at-home workers were not productive, while some are charged with low productivity while running outside projects.

What I find most disturbing is how these women, at the apex of the business world, continue to elicit tough criticism for many of their decisions. They make news precisely because, in 2013, there are still so few of them. It's like the NASCAR of female executives, where fans are waiting for the crash. Meanwhile, top male executives make plenty of unexamined choices, being held to lesser standards.

Not helping. We're nowhere near parity. A woman makes 77 cents to every man's dollar. Only 21 women lead Fortune 500 companies. There aren't enough women managing institutions of all sizes, on the masthead, or in executive leadership.

A Harvard-trained lawyer, Michelle Obama is best known for her wardrobe and role as "mother-in-chief." Instead, I wish she would champion a national paid parental-leave policy and quality child-care coverage, which would help women and families.

Women constitute 18 percent of the U.S. Congress, and 10 percent of all governors. Pennsylvania has a dismal record, having never elected a female senator, governor, or mayor of its largest city. Some progress: Allyson Y. Schwartz, the lone congresswoman, is considering a run for governor, while State Sen. Barbara Buono announced her gubernatorial candidacy in New Jersey, which has zero female representatives in Washington.

Stalled, women shouldn't be content with a fifth of the U.S. Senate, three-quarters of men's pay, or one month of history - yet the majority of home and child-care responsibilities.

As feminist Marie Wilson said, "Show me a woman without guilt, and I'll show you a man."

It is hard to argue with Sandberg, who wants women to lead and men to do more housework.

Why criticize her success? More Sheryls, more Marissas, more, more, more.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter

at @kheller.