"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 US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.