Skip to main content

Bravo to Sheryl Sandberg for leaving work at 5:30

By Pamela Stone, Special to CNN
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Tue April 17, 2012
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, pictured at a December news conference with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer, says she leaves work daily at 5:30 p.m.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, pictured at a December news conference with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer, says she leaves work daily at 5:30 p.m.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to spend time with kids
  • Her announcement helps destigmatize flexible work practices, Pamela Stone says
  • Flexibility increases productivity, commitment and morale in the workplace, she says
  • Stone: For women, the costs of workplace inflexibility are up close and personal

Editor's note: Pamela Stone, author of "Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home," is a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

(CNN) -- NEWS FLASH: Working mom leaves office at 5:30 to spend time with kids.

Sadly, this is newsworthy, especially when the mom in question is Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. By outing herself and urging others to follow her lead, Sandberg did us all a great service. Her announcement is an important step in normalizing and destigmatizing flexible work practices that should be prevailing practices, not exceptions.

Welcome as her announcement is, it also offers a cautionary tale. While she's been leaving at 5:30 since her children were born, or about seven years, it's only in the last two years, she says, that she's been "brave enough to talk about it publicly."

Pamela Stone
Pamela Stone

Despite the fact that the vast majority of women, especially professional women like Sandberg, combine careers and kids, the dirty little secret of today's workplace is that it still takes bravery -- and perhaps being the COO -- to be able to talk openly about leaving at the end of the day.

It's hard to imagine that Sandberg, a woman whose career has taken her from Harvard to Treasury to Google to second-in-command at Facebook, is easily cowed. She may not be every woman, but her fear of the consequences of being found out is shared by far too many working moms. Unfortunately, their fears appear to be well-grounded. Sandberg is the exception who proves the rule.

Pete Cashmore: Why it's OK to leave a tech job at 5 p.m.

Judged against powerful professional time norms, where long hours and constant availability are taken as proxies for commitment and competence (despite evidence to the contrary), Sandberg is what sociologists would call a "time deviant," which is anyone who works other than full-time plus.

This includes leaving "early" or working part-time or job-sharing. Research shows that working flexibly is a career killer whatever your gender, but women, especially mothers, who are more likely to take advantage of flexible options, face a double penalty: one for working flexibly; another simply for being a mother. Both translate in to dead ends and reduced pay.

That's for those who continue working, but often overlooked are the approximately 25% to 30% who don't, instead interrupting and sometimes terminating their careers. While this group is popularly understood as having "opted out," in my research I found that their "options" typically consisted of working all or nothing, and that their decisions to quit were reluctant and conflicted.

As a former management consultant told me about her employer: "What they really wanted you to do was bust your ass, and if there was anything that was going to get in the way of doing that, then you completely became chopped liver."

For these women, most of whom never envisioned having to choose between careers and children, the costs of workplace inflexibility are up close and personal -- diverted dreams and forgone earnings and independence. As a society, we bear the larger costs, when their workplace exits deprive us of much needed talent and drain the pipeline of future women leaders.

Sandberg's clandestine "early" leave-taking was a private solution to a public problem. Like so many women, she found a way to make work work. Too often, the ability to work flexibly is a perk, an extra, something for high fliers that has to be earned, or something that's on the books, but only approved in special cases. It's not a best practice and certainly not a right.

Yet, as a report from the Council of Economic Advisers, commissioned for a 2010 White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility, shows, flexibility is a best practice. Among its many benefits are increased productivity, reduced turnover and absenteeism, and higher morale and company commitment. Many European countries know this and are well ahead of us in creating the flexible workplaces of the 21st century, while ours remain so last-century.

By being candid about her own experiences, Sandberg's admission can help us recognize and begin to chip away at the penalties linked to flexibility, borne disproportionately by women. I'm part of a working group, led by lawyer/author Joan Williams at UC-Hastings School of Law's Center for WorkLife Law, which seeks to do the same, by documenting this emerging new form of discrimination and identifying potential legal remedies.

Sandberg's announcement reminds us, too, of how little we're asking for when we ask for flexibility -- things like getting home to have dinner with our families or take an ailing parent to the doctor. We know that workers of all kinds, ages and genders want more control over how and where they work so they can have a life, with or without family.

Yet until we lift the stigma and penalty attached to flexible work arrangements, we can anticipate that workers will be wary of taking advantage of them. Sheryl Sandberg has started an important conversation, one that encourages more of us to ask for flexibility and emboldens us to talk about it.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pamela Stone.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT