Skip to main content

Bravo to Sheryl Sandberg for leaving work at 5:30

By Pamela Stone, Special to CNN
April 17, 2012 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
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
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT