"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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage