On Sandberg, freelancing and being nice


Being a woman and a freelancer (a common enough ailment these days), I was interested in the Listener's feature on Sheryl Sandberg and women in the workplace. She contends in her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, that women can aspire to being both successful and nice. She argues that as men grow more successful people like them more, but the opposite is true of women. She is right, of course. Both Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark claimed that in their rise to the top they had to sacrifice the desire to be liked. However, much in all as I agree with most of Sandberg's sage advice, we have heard it all before. Her book could quite easily have been called instead, The Feminine Mystique Part 6. And criticisms of her book are similar to those of Betty Friedan's classic; that strategies to win equality work only for women who are already privileged.

At 43 and as Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, Sandberg is at the top of her game. But in her world women's lives don't appear to have the variability we mortal girls contend with: sick or disabled children, ageing parents who need to be cared for, uncooperative partners, single parenthood, accidents and ill health, not to mention living in a climate of continuous corporate "realignment".  

For many women succeeding at work is a nice-to-get but it's not essential. We work to put food on the table, and if we can afford to add Villeroy Boch china and David Mellor cutlery all the better, but they are not necessary. I think that as women grow older and wiser we learn that there's more to life than a brilliant career, and not because we are defeatist or lazy, but because we learn through observing our male colleagues that status and riches in themselves do not bring enduring personal satisfaction, or even respect. We want to be nice because we value the people around us more than we value promotion, and that's not a bad thing. Don't get me wrong. I am as apologetically feminist as the next woman. But Sandberg's advice, while well meant, is firmly rooted in the capitalist ethic that wealth and seniority are worthy goals if only we women could learn how to achieve them. 

There is one area where Sandberg is bang on the money, and that is about money. She advises that when women negotiate their pay we need to justify ourselves so as not to appear greedy. Strategies include saying things like a manager suggested a certain salary would be appropriate, or that we are looking to match industry benchmarks. As a woman and a freelance writer and editor her advice is valuable. It might come as a surprise to some people that female freelancers do not work for a bit of spare cash or to kill time till the kids get home from school. We are professionals and experts with qualifications and experience in spades. We do not all have partners who bring in the real money and even when we do, that is never a reason to sell ourselves short. Refusing to accept unfair low rates will cost us business but for all freelancers - men and women - it's better to say no than to have our skills and time purchased for pin money. 

I firmly believe that women can succeed just as Sandberg urges us to. But perhaps another way to achieve is to play the long game. By practising the old-fashioned virtues of patience and perseverance we can still rise to the top, and with our integrity, likeability and friendships intact. In other words, if we work hard and be nice to people we will be rewarded in richer ways than just material wealth.