Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have presented themselves as trailblazing women who, despite continued barriers to female advancement, have managed to secure the corner office.
With both women the focus of headlines in recent days -- Sandberg for a book that some say dismisses the challenges of work-motherhood balance for those without eight-figure incomes, Mayer for an edict that employees at Yahoo can no longer work from home -- they find themselves on the receiving end of accusations that they have effectively created new obstacles for women.
But if the furor has rendered them lightning rods in a national conversation about the pressures on career women, it does not seem to have cost them many admirers among females forging their way in technology.
In conversations with five women who make their living in technology -- some in Silicon Valley, others on the East Coast -- the sense emerges that Sandberg and Mayer remain inspirational figures who have triumphed despite institutional challenges. If the punditocracy cares to make hay of their recent words and actions, these women prefer to focus on trying to emulate their successes.
“I came from nothing -- I didn’t have any relationships or money -- and I wish that when I was struggling with my own career, I had had advice from Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. I had to figure my own way out,” said Ping Fu, chief strategy officer at 3D Systems and the author of Bend, Not Break, an autobiography recounting her ascent in Silicon Valley. “No matter who gives advice, it’s never applicable to everybody ... You don’t have to take it if you don’t think it applies to you, but it can apply to others.”
Fat bank accounts, nannies and lavish homes don’t disqualify Mayer and Sandberg from being role models, these women said. True, they had educations at elite universities and middle-class upbringings to help springboard their careers, but they didn’t start off with a staff of assistants.
“She [Sandberg] wasn’t born into where she is. She worked to get there, so it’s unfair to criticize her for that,” said Marissa Campise, a vice president at Venrock, a venture capital firm.
And women in tech are not inclined to wholly dismiss the duo's advice if their own situations are not exactly the same, or if certain opinions expressed by Sandberg and Mayer clash with their own. Although they said they don't agree with Mayer's working-from-home ban, they acknowledged it is likely more of a business decision made to save an ailing company than it is a war on working mothers.
The debate over the female tech executives suggests an unfair double standard that persists for women, they added. Men in Silicon Valley who balance fatherhood with life in the C-Suite not only escape similar levels of scrutiny over the helping hand they do or don't lend to women, but have largely managed to avoid questions about their work-life balance.
“Why are no men attacked?” Fu asked. “They have money and a babysitter, so their advice shouldn’t count?”
Women in the tech world aren’t looking to Mayer and Sandberg for a direct career roadmap they can copy, but rather for a vocabulary -- and structure -- for conversations about what still isn’t working for women in the workplace. Sandberg's advice in her book Lean In won't apply to everyone, and certainly puts the onus on women to seize opportunities in their careers. But better to have a high-profile, high-powered person acknowledge the slights and biases women still face than to clam up completely, the women noted.
Sandberg’s life advice crops up frequently in lunches and dinners between female colleagues and friends, and Sandberg's mottos -- like “lean in,” “demand a seat at the table” and “don’t leave before you leave” -- are approaching slogan status among many working women.
Nisha Gulati, a former Facebook employee and current community director for Carrotmob, said she thinks about Sandberg’s maxims “all the time” and credits Sandberg’s philosophy for helping her make the shift to a new job at a Silicon Valley startup. When she was debating her next career move, Gulati, then 30 years old and anticipating that she’d want to have children within a few years’ time, caught herself evaluating her job offers by comparing firms’ maternity policies.
“Then I realized that that mentality was exactly what Sheryl talks about. That was me leaving before I left,” Gulati wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “And it was a totally ridiculous and short-sighted way of making the decision. I realized that I should grab onto the incredible opportunity, not the convenient one -- that's what a man would do.”
Gulati also maintains that Sandberg’s advocacy has helped women discuss issues of work-life balance in the workplace.
“Because she’s speaking about it so publicly, it makes it easier to have these conversations with your coworkers and your family, within Facebook and outside of Facebook,” Gulati said.
Even as the executives' personal success provides inspiration to other women, there's hope that Mayer and Sandberg will more actively move the focus beyond their own career paths to stress what companies can do to help their employees -- male and female -- "lean in." It's one thing to be a role model, but another to be actively petitioning and advocating for systemic change in the corporate landscape.
"For the woman who does want a seat at the table and wants to 'learn in,' Sandberg shows how she can do that more," said NY Tech Meetup executive director Jessica Lawrence. "The other part is that there is definitely a systemic problem as well ... It's not only about women changing their own behavior, but about society changing its behavior as well."