It's been a big week for Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, often credited for increasing the social network's revenue and growing their user base exponentially in the years since CEO Mark Zuckerberg whisked her away from Google.
Ms. Sandberg appears to have it all: an impressive title, a work history that includes being chief of staff to the U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, TED Talk videos that generate over a million views, and a celebrity status that has seen her share a podium with mainstream celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey as well as the world's most influential businessmen at the Davos World Economic Forum. Now, the outspoken 42-year-old joins the ranks of some of wealthiest self-made women as Facebook began trading publicly on Friday on the Nasdaq.
But she possesses another role, one of unofficial spokeswoman for career-driven women, especially working moms. Many professional women, like me, hang on to her every word, tweeting her one-liners en masse as soon as they hit media sites and giving her the status of an oracle, or at least a business superstar.
My business crush on Ms. Sandberg began after her commencement speech at Barnard College in 2011 where she lamented that women of our generation never solved the equality issue, inspiring graduates to be fearlessly ambitious. Yet, if we plan on continuing to claim Ms. Sandberg as our version of the ideal woman, it's important to explore why her and why now.
For one, Ms. Sandberg fills a void since few women reach her career heights and, of those who do, even fewer draw attention to the lack of female representation at the top levels of business and government.
"When I started coaching women [9-years ago] no one wanted to hear that the playing field might not yet be level for women in the workplace," recalled Dr. Ann Daly, an Austin, Tex.-based author and career coach devoted to the advancement of women.
Before the Sheryl Sandberg generation, observed Dr. Daly, most successful business leaders took the Carly Fiorina approach, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. who once declared that there is no glass ceiling. At that time, it was too risky to be self-identified as a woman with struggles because that carried the baggage of a victim or whiner, explained Dr. Daly.
Dr. Daly believes the time is right for our culture to digest this message and Ms. Sandberg is perfectly placed to be its spokeswoman, given her role at one of the "greatest success stories in corporate America."
"Today, it is no longer taboo to talk about it. Despite the fact that women are now better educated and more ambitious, the workplace is still structured to favour men," Dr. Daly said.
This candid insight into the work force wins Ms. Sandberg many admirers, including Lally Rementilla, a self-proclaimed "Sheryl" junkie. She once sent Facebook's No. 2 a handwritten note detailing her admiration and quickly received a response. Ms. Rementilla even credits her role as vice-president of finance at Nulogy Corp., a software company in Toronto, as her "Sheryl Sandberg moment," since she entered the company as a more experienced member of the management team, as well as the oldest.
"Sheryl stands out because we are seeing her through her journey, in her own terms," mused Ms. Rementilla, who feels that other top female executives simply focus on their accomplishments rather than their struggles. "We see a Sheryl who is not afraid to talk about 'taboo women topics' such as ambition, crying in front of your boss, leaving at 5:30 p.m. and having the right marriage partner," she observed.
Not everyone believes the Sandberg phenomenon is flawless, with some suggesting that her superstardom carries risks for women in the business world and in their personal lives.
Winnipeg-born Karla Stephens-Tolstoy, a former CEO of Vodafone in the Czech Republic, wonders if the media's perception of Ms. Sandberg sets unreasonable expectations for women.
"How does she manage to leave work at 5:30 every day?" asked Ms. Tolstoy, who now runs Tokii.com, a relationship site in Toronto. "Does it mean that those of us who can't manage to do that aren't as competent at managing our time?" she added. Since Ms. Stephens-Tolstoy's business focuses on strengthening relationships, she worries that the impression that Ms. Sandberg is a "wonder woman" may lead others to entertain unattainable objectives about "having it all." She also wonders how true-to-life Ms. Sandberg's perfect balancing act is behind the cameras.
Regardless of where you stand on the Sheryl Sandberg fan meter, she wields tremendous influence for many women. Given the scarcity of other female role models, my fingers are crossed that she never stumbles.