Sheryl Sandberg: a no-nonsense dresser

Though her book ‘Lean In’ gives no advice on presenting oneself for the office, her style is youthful, energetic and relaxed


‘What will I wear?” is one of the questions most women ask themselves when faced with a job interview, negotiation, media appearance or conference.

Women in the workplace comment on each others’ clothes all the time. For women, the issue of how to make a confident and attractive (but not too attractive) statement through their clothes is problematic, with many opting for blacks and greys.

But style in the workplace is a subject that outspoken 43-year-old billionaire Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, has never discussed. Her influential and controversial best-selling manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead , has seen Sandberg criticised by some commentators for berating ordinary women who don’t “lean in”, especially after they have children.

There is not a sentence in the book about presenting oneself for the office. Sandberg is in Dublin today to address staff at Facebook’s international headquarters, and her outfit shouldn’t be an issue. But to never talk about it?

Even when she appeared in Vogue alongside other powerful style icons such as Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Sandberg stood out in that she didn’t talk about clothes. (For the photo shoot, only Sandberg and Clinton wore red, while the others stuck to greys, blacks and white cotton wrap shirts.)

Sandberg looked great, but it would be interesting to know how a woman decides what to wear to work in an office full of young men in hoodies and in an industry that is notoriously ageist. Her 29-year-old boss, Mark Zuckerberg, dresses in jeans, T-shirts and North Face fleece jackets.

Sandberg sometimes wears suits, unlike her boss (her PR people whisper that she only wears them when she is put into them for photographs). A hint that she is aware of her image came in a Guardian interview last week. “I don’t want to look super-uncomfortable, like I usually do in pictures. I’m not a model type, I’m a suburban mom, so nothing too fashiony,” the 43-year-old billionaire remarked.

But Sandberg is not a suburban mother in the sense that most suburban mothers would understand. On the most basic level, she has domestic staff. Early on at Facebook, she made it a habit to leave the office at 5.30pm for dinner, bath and story time with her two children – but you can bet that she answered her emails later. When you are rich and calling the shots, it is easier to combine work and family.

No-nonsense approach
Her no-nonsense approach is reflected in her style, which is youthful, energetic and relaxed. It starts with a fit body, which is toned in her home gym every day at 6.30am. She shows it off in fitted dresses and favours cardigans rather than jackets. Her unadorned and simple skirts and tops aren’t “fashiony”, but are fashionable.

Her body-conscious clothes are perfectly fitted to her petite figure, but they’re also monochrome and plain. Her official Facebook photo has her in a plain grey V-neck cardigan and black skirt. When she goes for colour, she likes blues and purples, and her jewellery is limited to her watch, wedding rings and earrings. Her style doesn’t distract from her face, or detract attention from her message.

This analysis may seem superficial in the context of her achievements, but her unwillingness to talk about it has made her seem more detached from the lives of ordinary women than she probably is.

She was speaking as a working mother when she advised women to push themselves harder for promotion at work after they have had children. She probably has a point when she says that the three mistakes women make are sitting off to the side in meetings, instead of at the boardroom table; not making their partners share domestic duties 50-50; and taking their foot off the gas at work when they have children, even planning their exits before they get pregnant.

She was accused of telling women to “pull themselves up by their Louboutin straps” by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, while feminist commentator Joanne Bamberger said she had “fired the latest salvo in the war against moms”.

The vitriol has been such that Time magazine put Sandberg – again in red – on the cover, with the headline: “Don’t hate her because she’s successful.”

A lot of the criticism has focused on her calling herself a suburban mom, when in fact she’s had privileged access to power, having studied at Harvard Business School, worked for the Clinton administration and then as chief-of-staff in the US treasury department, before being head-hunted by Google. She joined Facebook after clicking with Zuckerberg at a Yahoo Christmas party. Sandberg has been responsible for the day-to-day operations of Facebook since 2007, and her own clever management of her Facebook stock options has made her a billionaire.

Women judged on appearance

But why not talk about women’s body image and clothing? It’s a huge issue, and a barrier for women, who

are judged, more than men are, on their appearance. Her business itself plays a part in this: as girls spend more time on Facebook, looking at selfies and other photographs, their body image deteriorates, reported Dr Petya Eckler, University of Strathclyde.

Sandberg may want to think about doing something about that, as she has already has form in this regard, commanding that stock images of the “woman laughing with salad” variety be replaced with more realistic portrayals.

Perhaps Sandberg’s refusal to talk about her clothes also alienates her from women to a degree. Or maybe she is simply right when she says: “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”

Lean In: For Graduates, a new version of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, has just been published with chapters on finding your first job and negotiating your salary

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