If you can lean in, you can lean out too

When Bill Gates stepped down from the Microsoft board in 2020 to pursue philanthropy, people conveniently forgot the allegations of his intimacy with a former employee that might have prompted such a move. And by the time Jack Dorsey decided to step down from Twitter in his 40s, people believed his higher love and calling, seeing a greater purpose behind his flowing beard, ice baths and once-a-day meals. Yet when Sheryl Sandberg, considered the tech goddess and as much a doughty maker of Meta as Mark Zuckerberg, stepped down from her pedestal, all hell broke loose.

While her predecessors were hailed as change-makers, she was denounced as a mid-life maniac. Her sin? Choosing “to write the next chapter of her life”, prioritising family life and pursuing women-oriented philanthropy. For all her clarity of thought at 52, daring to make the next half of her life count in different ways, she wasn’t considered either noble like Gates or the sexy mystic like Dorsey. All she faced was one big question – “Why now?” — with attendant conspiracy theories. Unfortunately Sandberg, for all the glass ceilings she had shattered throughout her life, had all the broken shards headed her way.

Was she escaping controversies like Cambridge Analytica, unethical data leaks and biased politics? Grave charges indeed. Does anybody stop to think that she might have felt choked enough by the toxicity of it all and decided to step outside than stay inside? Why doesn’t anybody consider that she made millions during her tenure and is resourceful enough to start anything she wants?

Most surprising was the attack on her by her own kind, the women whom she addressed through her charitable foundation, Lean In, that aims to see women in 50 per cent of the positions in company boards and 50 per cent in the workforce. For someone who had been righteous about working mothers not giving up, they simply accused her of betraying the feminist cause, trading her hard-won position for personal comfort and being hypocritical about continuing to work for women’s causes.

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In a moment, Sandberg was seen as trivialising the criticality of her mission. And by foregoing her role-model position, she was seen as supreme traitor to the cause and reinforcing stereotypes of women not having it in them to go the whole hog. In an instant, people had turned her change-making moment into one of abandonment. Some even bad-mouthed her “Lean In” initiative as just a glossy handout of what male techpreneurs were already doing, seizing the leadership of a digital world that was completely wired out of real issues.

Yet Sandberg embodies nothing but the real issues. It matters little that a widowed woman at 52 also has the right to be happy and is simply taking some time off to reboot, steady her new ship, blending “her extended family of five children (fiance Tom Bernthal’s children and her two teenagers). Since when were working women anti-family or another species? Most middling women treat the 50s as an age of reconciliation, happy to let their professional confidence override their competitive hunger, at ease with letting their children go their way, and keen on winding down than starting up all over again. Sandberg has shown us that she has the courage to unlearn and relearn. For all talk of Lean In being about women of privilege, the foundation is equally devoted to addressing challenges of women in the fringes and challenging ageist biases for midlife women at the workplace.

Sandberg herself had once said, “As we get older, our challenges are exacerbated.” In a fitter world, where work life spans are increasing, why are women still considered either over-the-hill or a burnout? If men at 52 can be re-hired and re-trained for the depth of their experience, so can women who are far more flexible, adaptable and don’t mind beginning from scratch. Aggression and talent are in the end gender-agnostic. Yet women are not courted back despite the companies they helped build. Enough said, nothing done. Credit Sandberg for trying to do something.

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