In 2012, a record-breaking number of women reached the top of America's Fortune 500 companies. The number that broke the record? Twenty -- just 4 percent. As more and more women enter the workplace but remain stubbornly absent from the corner offices, the conversation about female titans of industry has taken on a new urgency, and former Google executives Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are at the center of the storm.
Sandberg, now chief operating officer of Facebook, had a roller-coaster year when the company's much-touted stock offering turned into a flop. But it was her comments on why there are too few women in the workplace that helped transform her into a controversial feminist icon for the tech era. In a series of widely discussed talks, Sandberg urged women to close the "ambition gap" -- a tendency to defer to men in the workplace so as to not appear "bossy" or in anticipation of leaving to start families. The predictable raging dispute ensued -- and is sure to flare back up when she publishes a book on the subject in 2013 -- but through it all Sandberg has stuck to her pragmatic approach to how women can help themselves get ahead while still getting home for dinner with the kids (at least occasionally). Sandberg is certainly leading by example: The mother of two young ones holds dual degrees from Harvard University, cut her teeth at the U.S. Treasury Department as Lawrence Summers's chief of staff (before his comments implying women are innately less capable at the sciences than men), and tirelessly campaigns for other women to fight for having it all as well.
For her part, Mayer announced this summer both that she was pregnant and that she was taking the helm of troubled tech behemoth Yahoo. Disapproval rained down from business elites, who accused her of compromising the health of her company, and from mothers, who accused her of compromising the health of her baby. But Mayer, a Stanford University-educated engineer who rose from one of Google's earliest employees to a vice president, refused to be cowed, and Yahoo agreed. Two weeks after giving birth to a boy in September, she tweeted that she was back in the office full time and announced a new COO to boot.
Between the two execs, the endless compromises and contradictions of the modern working woman were laid bare, prompting a searingly honest debate about women in power at a time when only a handful have made their way to its most exclusive corridors. Maybe the world is finally beginning to realize that a generation of mothers is going to need to figure out how to get to the top -- and stay there.
Anne-Marie Slaughter has been a dean at Princeton University and a top official at the U.S. State Department, where she oversaw the first-ever attempt to review and rationalize the sprawling bureaucracy's overseas priorities. She has been a passionate advocate for intervention in Syria. And she is an innovative and prolific scholar, arguing in numerous books and articles that the stodgy foreign policy of old is being transformed by the new realities of a networked world. But it was in another role -- as a mom and disaffected global policymaker -- that she catapulted herself into the public eye this year.
Slaughter's summer cover article in the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," chronicles her two years juggling her high-level Washington job with the needs of two teenage boys back in New Jersey -- a balancing act she concluded "was not possible." At more than 12,500 words, her essay on the inflexible work environment for even the planet's most successful women sparked a viral debate about the harsh reality of the glass ceiling in the U.S. workplace and around the world. Her critics zeroed in on the phrase "having it all" as implausible or even indulgent, and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded that while "some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs.… Other women don't break a sweat." But Slaughter said her hope is ultimately to make it easier for ambitious women to balance their family and professional lives -- an urgent necessity given that fewer than 20 women lead countries in the world today, 80 percent of all parliamentary seats are held by men, and a grand total of 17 percent of the world's government ministers are women.
"I think if I had an absolutely accurate title, it would be 'Why Working Mothers Need Better Choices to Be Able to Make It to the Top,'" Slaughter later said. But then again, "I'm not sure a million people would have read it. And I wanted to start a conversation. And we've started a conversation."Reading list: China Airborne, by James Fallows; The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism's Future, by Geoff Mulgan; Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. Best idea: The "slow money" movement. Worst idea: The creation of national intranets and greater global regulation of the Internet through the International Telecommunication Union. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet!