David Goldberg, Sheryl Sandberg and how spouses can help women ‘Lean In’

May 8, 2015
Sandberg, COO of Facebook, arrives with her husband Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, for the first day of the Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook, arrives with her husband David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, for the first day of the Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Following the news that SurveyMonkey chief executive officer Dave Goldberg had passed away suddenly while on vacation on May 1, tributes poured in from Silicon Valley and beyond. The Internet lit up with remembrances of Goldberg, who was 47 and had a reputation for being a nice guy in both an area and an industry where not everyone makes that effort.

Goldberg was more than a tech executive; he was also the husband of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, with whom he had two children. For devotees of Sandberg’s leadership bestseller, “Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead,” which counseled women to follow their ambitions, Goldberg represented the other side of that coin — a rare breed of modern-day spouse. To lean in, it’s helpful to have a spouse who prioritizes both partners’ careers equally, and who’s willing to take up the slack at home.

The national debate about working mothers’ success in business and other professions has always centered on anecdotes. Sandberg, as one of the most prominent women in Silicon Valley, at the helm of a high-profile company, makes for a great story about how far a woman can go. Any woman — any person — who aspires to a top-level career can look up to her. That’s why “Lean In” became a runaway phenomenon, sparking debates and spawning a movement to change the conversation around women and leadership by, among other things, banning the word “bossy” to describe assertive girls.

By all accounts, Goldberg became one of Sandberg’s key advantages as she moved from Harvard to increasingly responsible posts at the U.S. Treasury Department, Google and then Facebook, while balancing motherhood. Reports indicate the pair considered both their careers equally when making decisions, which led to two stellar resumes — a classic Power Couple.

Mention this arrangement to a working mother, especially a highly-educated, high-potential woman from the same demographic as Sandberg, and the reaction is usually a rueful “lucky her.” A survey of Harvard Business School alumni — Sandberg’s peers — published in Harvard Business Review in December illustrated this problem. The study showed that the gender gap in top management ranks did not relate to motherhood or even to parenthood; women just simply were not getting ahead at the same rates as men, and not because they were “opting out” to raise children. And this perennial glass ceiling made them less happy with their career progression.

“Women tended to be less satisfied than men with their career growth — except for those whose careers and child care responsibilities were seen as equal to their partners’,” wrote authors Robin J. Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman.

What helps as a woman is climbing the ladder at work, traveling frequently and staying late at the office — especially once she has children? A supportive, involved spouse. One who not only listens and empathizes, but also leaves the office at 4 p.m. to pick up Junior for soccer, or spends a weekend in a school gym waiting for a child to be done with chess, or lacrosse, or the science fair. One who reads the teacher’s note about the field trip, signs the permission slip, and remembers to pack a lunch the night before. One who buys birthday gifts for classmates’ parties, helps out at the book fair, and makes sure thank-you notes are handwritten, stamped and mailed.

In our mobile sharing economy, an increasing number of to-do items can be outsourced and virtualized, but some things must be done in person. These are the mundane, time-consuming tasks of running a family that virtually always fall to the mother, unless the father is at home full- time (if there are two mothers, typically one takes on these responsibilities).

Behind any mother who’s in charge at work is usually someone who fills this role: a stay-at-home spouse, a trusted nanny, or even a grandparent (see Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, who moved into the White House to look after her granddaughters). In some cases, a spouse has retired and takes over at home (see Carly Fiorina’s husband, Frank). It’s possible to raise a family using only daycare and after-school programs, but difficult once the children are old enough to need chauffeuring to activities.

The advantage of an equal spouse, one who’s committed to advancing both partners’ careers, is that logistics, business trips and emergencies become the problem of both parents. When the school calls to say the child has a fever, or it’s parent-teacher conference night, the parents can take turns leaving work.

What happens when the spouses haven’t made such an agreement? Anecdotally, this is the point where, as children are born and the man’s career takes off, the woman may stall at work, scale back, or quit. It’s particularly true when the woman’s job pays less than the man’s.

A typical real-life story: a working mom of three, in the same job for nearly a decade, says she stays in a role she doesn’t find challenging because she has flexibility with her schedule. Another woman, the mother of two, cut back her in-office schedule to four days a week so she can get child-related errands done. A third started her own consulting firm so she could set her own hours when her children were born.

Many, if not most, women in similar situations say that they feel fulfilled; studies have found the happiest mothers are those with part-time jobs. But overwhelmingly, part-time workers, even at an executive level, are not achieving the career goals they set for themselves earlier in life. Priorities do shift as time passes. And women sometimes return to hard-charging work later on. But they are unlikely to rise to the C-suite at a company like Facebook or Google.

The statistics are clear: women are more than half of undergraduates, and at top business schools they make up about a third of MBA students. Getting the most capable of them into positions as responsible as Sandberg’s may take a lot more husbands like the late Dave Goldberg.

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