"Women make trade-offs between success and likability"

A fascinating profile of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg raises important questions about women in the wo

The current issue of the New Yorker has an intriguing profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the woman Mark Zuckerberg poached from Google in 2008 to become Facebook's chief operating officer.

As well as how it offers an insight into the simmering rivalry between these two internet giants, the piece is also worth reading for its discussion of the role of women in big business.

Sandberg doesn't describe herself as a feminist, although she is keen to increase the number of women at senior levels in tech companies (Facebook's six-man board is just that -- all men). The piece discusses juggling work and motherhood, the dearth of female engineers and whether asking about maternity leave is a "girl question" that makes a woman seem weak.

But, for me, there are two key insights. The first is that both men and women still find the idea of a woman in a high-profile role sufficiently unusual that it often provokes a negative emotional reaction:

Sandberg says she eventually realised that women, unlike men, encountered trade-offs between success and likability. The women had internalised self-doubt as a form of self-defense: people don't like women who boast about their achievements. The solution, she began to think, lay with the women. She blamed them more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism.

In a Ted talk, Sandberg reiterates this point: not enough women negotiate their salaries when entering a job, she believes (57 per cent of men do, against 7 per cent of women). And women are still lumbered with the lion's share of housework and childcare. Woman need to find a "real partner" at home and become more assertive at work.

The second point I found interesting is the one raised by critics of Sandberg's pull-your-socks-up-ladies approach: that it is difficult for women to negotiate the patronage system in companies when the bosses are all male.

Sandberg was lucky enough to be "sponsored" in her early career by her former tutor, US Business Secretary Larry Summers -- but for many women, being "taken under the wing" of a senior male executive would not be an entirely positive move.

The profile's author, Ken Auletta, quotes a paper by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, director of the gender and policy programme at Columbia, published in the Harvard Business Review:

Sponsorship, which often involves an older, married male spending one-on-one time, often off-site and after hours, with a younger, unmarried female, can look like an affair; and the greater the power disparity between the male and the female, the more intense the speculation becomes that the relationship is more than professional. If the woman is subsequently promoted, her achievement will be undermined by office gossip that she earned it illicitly.

Those are just a couple of highlights from a nuanced and wide-ranging piece, which doesn't pretend there are easy answers to the questions it poses. If you're interested in why women are still underrepresented at middle-management and boardroom level, it goes beyond the usual "They don't have a killer instinct"/"They drop out and have babies"/"Most businesses are institutionally sexist" lines and offer a few (sometimes uncomfortable) suggestions. Yes, it's long -- 8,000 words -- but well worth a read on a drizzly weekend afternoon.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle