It was such a provocative headline on Inc.com I just had to check it out: "Sheryl Sandberg Leaves Work at 5:30. Why Can't You?" Provocative, I suppose, to women who work full time, on their own or on someone else's business, and who at some point in their careers wanted more in their work day than just work. Women like me, who clicked on the headline in her news aggregator, wondering, "and just how does she do that?"
The Inc. Magazine piece cites a video for Makers.com, a video project on AOL, in which Sandberg says:
"I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I'm home for dinner with my kids at 6:00, and interestingly, I've been doing that since I had kids..."
The messages in the Inc. article were: "Hey if Sheryl can do it, so can you!" and, don't kill yourself working the long hours you think you need to to be successful--studies show there's a diminishing return after 40 hours per week. The piece was actually very thought-provoking, though I must confess I was hung up on the part about Sheryl Sandberg leaving the office at 5:30. Here's why.
The time of day we let ourselves put our work down, while important, does not confirm whether we have work-life balance. While I have burned the midnight oil with the best of them in my earlier startup days, I leave the office at 4pm now. I do this because I have a three-highway commute that takes over an hour each way and I want to make it home for dinner with my husband and 19-month old daughter, at 5:30. (Before we had her I never ate dinner before 8 or 8:30.) But I wouldn't exactly accuse myself of being a "balanced" female entrepreneur.
Sure I get a dose of family time. As the full-time working parent it's my job--and my desire--to take on the caregiving at night and give my daughter a bath, get her in jammies (yes, jammies), read her a book or ten, brush her teeth, and rub her back while she talks to the stuffed animals in her crib. By 7:30 p.m. she's usually asleep. At this time I break out the laptop and work for another two or three hours. And while I don't live in her home and can't confirm, I suspect Sheryl Sandberg does too.
This schedule, adds considerably more time to that 40-hour work week, though I don't point this out to complain. These additional hours at the end of my day are not strenuous or difficult. But the hours I spend traveling are. These are weeks when having dinner with my family is out of the questions, and I suspect this is the case for Sheryl Sandberg too. I suspect that, like me, she travels a good amount of the time, judging by the YouTube videos I see of her at TEDWomen, or the World Economic Forum and considering the global nature of Facebook's business. I applaud Sandberg's insistence on being home with her children during a "typical" work day. But I must check the press who don't qualify her statement with the reality of female entrepreneurs: most days ain't typical.
There's also an unspoken dynamic that should be addressed before we paint a picture of balance and success being SO accessible: power equals freedom; and power usually takes a lot of hours to earn.
Sandberg is the second ranking executive at a powerful company, with the power to address company culture. Women entrepreneurs who are just starting out are often at the mercy of their customers, their advertisers, their VCs. In order to grow their power and the power of their companies they must be in front of the right people, in the right places, often at highly inconvenient times. Before I had my daughter I made it a point to not let geography or time zone be an issue; I simply showed up. You can question whether or not I had to, but I'll argue that many women starting businesses would say there is no choice.
As one female CEO once said to me when I told her that I brought my husband and daughter to a conference, hoping that by bringing them I would get to spend time with them in the mornings and before my daughter's bedtime (which I didn't): "After a few years I just realized I wasn't going to get to make it all work out. The kids would have to stay at home; and I would have to be apart from them. I couldn't make both worlds work together."
Leaving the office at 5:30 is not having the best of both worlds; it's making the most of the world we're in.
You could argue that Sandberg's success makes establishing balance easier than it is for other women. I recall an interview I did for BlogHer with Lisa Belkin back in 2008. We talked a bit about the B word--balance--and why it was such a bugaboo. And not just because, as current professional wisdom holds, balance and excellence are rarely inclusive. I mentioned an article I read in The New York Times early in my professional career that showed how little successful media executives slept. The article depressed me because it made me think that in order for these folks to stay on top they had to maintain an almost superhuman schedule, working until 1 or 2 a.m. and then waking up at 5 a.m. to work out, read the papers, and drink something probiotic before promptly starting work. In the case of the women profiled, there was little to no mention of their family lives.
Belkin argued the contrary, that very senior women had the resources to help them achieve balance. They had housekeepers, assistants, perhaps even personal chefs and drivers, to help clear away the domestic friction between their personal and professional lives. I have to believe this is true.
I love that Sheryl Sandberg leaves work by 5:30 to have dinner with her family by 6 p.m. But I doubt she's heating up the leftovers or cracking open cans of Chef Boyardee to fit it all in. She's got help; just like I do.