Have It All? Yeah, Right!

Once again, the "have it all" myth has reared it's schizoid head. This time, the poster woman is Facebook's second most famous face, COO Sheryl Sandberg, who graced the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Don't get me wrong. I love Sandberg. We all do. A graduate of the Harvard Business School (and protege of Larry Summers), she's emerged as one of the country's most impressive female power brokers, not to mention role model to women and girls everywhere. And rightly so. As the Chronicle story points out, she's a "passionate advocate for women to claim a far greater share of the top corporate leadership positions." But she says the sharing of leadership starts in the home:

"A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world," Sandberg said during a May commencement address at Barnard College in New York City.

"To solve this generation's central moral problem, which is gender equality, we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women's voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored," she said.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a leadership and organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said Sandberg has become "a symbol for a new wave of feminism, where women can own their power by just being women, where you don't have to see that as totally incompatible. You can be feminine and be a totally powerful person."

And hooray for that, right? But where the story threw me sideways was a throw-away line in the preceding paragraph. After writer Benny Evangelista noted that last year Forbes named Sandberg the fifth most powerful woman in the world, and Fortune named her the 12th most powerful woman in business, he wrote:

Yet she still managed to balance her professional life with raising two young children, making her the ultimate role model for women who want to have it all.

Have it all? Get real. She's got two young kids, a killer career and is married to the CEO of another Silicon Valley company, who presumably is pretty darn busy himself. Clearly, she might have it all, but she surely can't be doing it all. At least not without lots of hired help. (Sandberg, by the way, declines to be interviewed about anything but the company, according to Evangelista.)

That's the issue, isn't it? As women who have come of age in the second half of the twentieth century, we've been raised with the mantra that we can have it all. We can do anything. We can do everything. And yet. Despite the progress we women have made in scarcely more than a generation, the world has not caught up. Workplace structures, public policy -- even the social culture -- is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business. But who lives like that anymore? In this economy, who could? And the 40-hour workweek? A pipedream, especially once you leap up on the corporate ladder. Or even if you don't. Nonetheless, in most households, women own the second shift. (Even Nobel Prize winners: Biologist Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University was doing the laundry when she got the call that she had won the Nobel Prize in medicine.)

So, this notion of "having it all." It's great, and all that. But there's a problem of holding up superstars like Sandberg (or Angelina Jolie: We can all birth/adopt a bunch of kids and still find the time to make movies, right?) to convince us that we can run a company and raise a family, all while wearing a big fat smile and some killer high heels. Cue the iconic sex-kitten ad from Enjolie perfume.

And that's what makes me crazy. First, as we explore in Undecided, when we find our own sense of balance entirely off-kilter, which I suspect is most of the time for most of us, we feel as if we're the ones who have blown it. We've chosen wrong. We've done it wrong. Which leaves us lusting after that greener grass: we'll have what she's having, thank you very much. We end up making the political the personal.

And that's just wrong. Because what I find most insidious about perpetrating the have-it-all myth is the fact that when we buy into it, we're lulled into a false state of complacency that keeps us from pushing for the kind of change that would help us all, male and female alike, no matter where we sit on the food chain. But it's going to take work. And conversation.

Not to put more words in Sandberg's mouth, but I suspect she would approve.