"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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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.