A More Dire Assessment of Work-Life Balance: Erin Callan vs. Sheryl Sandberg

Ryan Duffy wrote earlier this week about the brouhaha over Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of a new controversial book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Ryan concluded that all of the sniping at Sandberg was unfair:

In a society where men still dominate most of the power positions, I care less about whether Sandberg is privileged and more about her personal insights, however biased they may be. Sure, not all of us are going to have a 9,000 square foot mansion. But isn’t it just as good that the only COO you can probably name right now is a woman?

It is fine and well to recognize Sandberg’s name, but it is equally important to know the name of another woman who had aspirations not unlike Sandberg’s. I’m referring to Erin Callan.

Callan was CFO of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and recently wrote a heartfelt op-ed for the New York Times describing her own experience as a tremendously successful professional executive. Basically, as Callan admits, she worked, period. She didn’t have any other hobbies, she didn’t prioritize her marriage, which failed and ended in divorce, she didn’t have children, she didn’t travel for fun, she didn’t learn to belly-dance. “When I wasn’t catching up on work, I spent my weekends recharging my batteries for the coming week. Work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage — which ended just a few years later.”

Just like Sandberg, Callan was good at her work and she succeeded at Lehman to the point of chief financial officer. This is no small achievement, and her accomplishments and perspective are no less important than Sandberg’s, even taking into account that Lehman collapsed. The reason is that both Callan and Sandberg want women to succeed at work they are just presenting very different views of what the reality of professional success is like.

Callan admits that there is no “balance” between work and life when it comes to such a high-level and demanding professional existence. Sandberg is arguing that women should push ahead with professional success and leadership because we need more women in these roles.

But Sandberg couldn’t possibly be a valuable role model to any women who haven’t chosen to prioritize their work over and above other pursuits. Nevermind that she insists she gets home every night by 5:30 to be with her family. Is she making her kids lunches every morning? Is she turning off her electronic devices and not checking in with work every night and every weekend? Is she staying home with her kids when they get sick?

Over at Slate’s ladies blog XXfactor, Jessica Grose poses similar questions because the Sandbergs haven’t been very forthcoming about their household arrangements beyond the basics that one of them is home for dinner most nights:

We don’t hear very much about what an average day at Chez Sandberg looks like, and we hear very little about what Sandberg does with her time at Facebook. Their child care arrangements are mostly mysterious, as is when she gets up in the morning, when she’s expected to arrive at the office, who picks the kids up when they barf at school, who drives the carpool for AYSO soccer on Saturday morning. A cursory Nexis search doesn’t reveal any more details about how they manage it.

If we take Callan’s word that working at such a high level pushes out every other aspect of your life, then we might be able to make some conclusions about Sandberg’s. And, for good reason, work is hard, being successful requires hours and hours of focus and concentration on your work and even then there is no guarantee of success. But some women, just like some men, choose that life and every one of us should be grateful for it since the capitalist system we enjoy could not grow and thrive without such focus and effort.

I just wish Sandberg could admit what Callan does: There are consequences to every choice, adults have to prioritize what is most valuable and most important to their sense of self-worth, putting your husband, children, or church ahead of your job isn’t morally inferior to chasing a professional pot of gold, and no one, not even Sheryl Sandberg, can have it all. Actually, who’d want to?

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5 responses to “A More Dire Assessment of Work-Life Balance: Erin Callan vs. Sheryl Sandberg

  1. I know a stay-at-home mom who was once told by a career woman standing in line at the grocery store that only uneducated women choose to stay at home with their children rather than have a career. I was appalled when she recounted this story to me. The woman who told me this had been a science teacher who chose to give up her career in teaching to stay home and educate her own children. I have a masters degree and I also choose to stay home with my daughter. I never want to wake up one day and realize that I missed the best years of my child’s life, or that I let someone else less qualified and less invested influence her worldview more than I did. There really IS a choice to be made. I’m with you – I wish people would admit that.

    1. I have run into the same ignorance towards stay at home mothers. My husband and I pinch pennies so I can be at home with our son. I have the rest of my life to work (and yes, I am college educated and had a great career beforehand), but very precious and few years to be with our son, and to give him the experience of being cared for and raised by his parents. I find it ironic that some people chose to view this as a waste of my abilities – as if the value of a woman and mother is solely what form of position she holds or amount of check she can bring in. If that is some women’s choice, so be it. As they struggle to compete in the work world while someone else tends to their child(ren), I am raising the future generation, and in a few short years, after this phase is complete, will return to a career/work, and never once regret losing this time with my boy.

  2. This is a debate between privileged women arguing over who’s heads to step on as they reach for the summit. Nearly all men and plenty of women have no choice in the “work vs. stay home” decision.

  3. umm..the capitalist system “we” enjoy..no maa’m just a teeny tiny correction here..it should read “the capitalist system” that the capitalists enjoy at the expense of the proletariat, the capitalist system that the capitalists enjoy on the basis of surplus value created by the workers.”

    Yes, I agree it took a lot of focus and concentration to run Lehman Bros, pretty evident that.

    -Baba T

  4. Thank you for addressing this dichotomy (see my comment to Ryan Duffy’s article on Sanburg). There really is a push-pull going on with those of us mothers who want to have successful careers AND family. I have realized that no matter what choice I make each day, I am sacrificing something. If I “choose” to work long hours one night or go on a business trip, I am sacrificing time with my precious 18 month old. If I “choose” to stay home with my son when he is sick, I sacrifice billing more hours and most likely will have a longer track to partnership than my male (or other non-moms) at my law firm. Either way, there are sacrifices.

    I think it’s important for everyone to remember that there is no cookie-cutter solution to these work-life balance issues. Each person (assuming she is financially able, of course) must make decisions that are right for her and her family. If she chooses to forge ahead in her career, “lean in,” and give more parental responsibilities to her spouse or some other caregiver, then good for her! If she chooses to put her career on hold or stay at home completely to spend more time with her kids, then more power to her as well!

    As a working mom, I often feel like stay-at-home moms are judging me for not being a good enough mom. But, I have friends who are stay-at-home moms who feel like they are judged by working moms (or working women in general) for giving up or not being smart or ambitious enough. If only we could stop the judging (or the internal feeling like we are being judged)! We each need to figure out what works best for us and not feel threatened that our decisions will make others feel a certain way.

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