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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT