When Bob Hawke presented himself as a candidate for the highest office in the land, he memorably confessed to being a boozer and a womaniser, and declared publicly that if he were to become prime minister he would give up the grog. It was well known that Hawke loved a drink, so implicit in that promise was the realisation that something had to give, and he gave up drinking.
We’ve since learned at Hazel Hawke’s recent funeral that when her husband was named Father of the Year in 1971, it was an honour that did not resonate well in the Hawke household. Those old enough to remember will recall Bob Hawke’s distress in 1984 when he publicly revealed his daughter’s drug problems, and some may have pondered whether he shed tears of remorse brought on by parental neglect. All things considered, it’s probably safe to say that something else he gave up in the name of achievement was, in large part, his family.
Hawke was not the first high-flier to do that and he won’t be the last. He was an immensely popular national leader but it was abundantly apparent that by no means did he “have it all”.
A Princeton scholar and former State Department employee, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote a celebrated Atlantic article last year on why women can’t have it all. Professor Slaughter’s State Department appointment represented the culmination of her life’s work as a distinguished public policy boffin. But she had a 14 year-old son back home in New Jersey who was in trouble.
Her seniority at Princeton meant she could control her hours, but at the State Department in Washington she jumped to the tune of others, and she had to sit powerless in her office while her son was out of control and out of reach.
So she did what many women before her would have done and abandoned her plumb Washington job. The ensuing Atlantic article was a reminder that even the most privileged women are forced to make difficult career and life decisions. The great masses of less privileged women, of course, don’t have choices and often survive in jobs that offer little control and no flexibility.
In March this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg entered the discussion. Having read her best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I’m convinced it has the potential to motivate women who want to emulate her rise in the corporate world.
The expression “lean in” is code for inspiring me and my female colleagues, by way of beguiling mantras, to be “ambitious in any pursuit”. To do that we must “leap at opportunities” and uncritically accept propositions such as “opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized”.
Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum unkindly suggested that the motivational refrains which pepper Lean In “could have equally come from a fortune cookie”.
And Amanda Hess from Slate was a trifle unforgiving in pointing out that Sandberg herself knocked back an offer in 2006 to be the CEO of LinkedIn because she wanted to have a second child.
At age 37, her 2006 decision seems reasonable enough. Yet it’s at odds with the categorical set of inspirational slogans that have led many of her followers to adopt attitudes such as those expressed by a recent opinion writer in the Australian Financial Review who advised its female readers to “stop doing other people’s work and get them to do yours”, and to “never feel guilty”. Needless to say, rigid snippets of that type of advice are not offered universally to all women because each advantage assumed entails a casualty, and probably a female one.
With an income last year of $821 million in vested shares alone, plus $328,000 salary, plus $277,000 in bonuses, there’s no getting away from the fact that Sandberg has been the recipient of astonishing good fortune.
Applebaum points out that her privileged upbringing saw her taking classes at Harvard with Larry Summers. Known for her ability to engage effortlessly with nerdish high-achieving men, she mixes with the likes of Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg.
And she has a husband who is content to lean back and take care of the children.
So if it’s possible to make your luck, Sandberg was well placed by upbringing and inclination to do that and she doesn’t deny it. Yet Applebaum notes that she is disinclined to give it the weight it deserves. Bill Gates credits the role of chance in his career, she says, but Gates is not packaging a motivational story. There is a view that Sheryl Sandberg is looking for disciples. I wish her well, but she is not likely to find one in me.
Lyn Goodear is chief executive of the Australian Human Resources Institute. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 7 August 2013.