Sheryl Sandberg sure has stirred up a shitstorm: Try to say that fast five times.
To begin with, the idea that the goodiest of the super hard-working, ladder-climbing, well-heeled, shiny-haired, corporate good girls of the Fortune 500 would become the outspoken Pope of 21st-century feminism is something of a head-spinner.
But that’s only because we’ve bought into the erroneous picture that the women's movement of the late 1960s consisted of the Birkenstocked at the Barricades.
Real life is often counterintuitive. One generation away from Gloria Steinem (who actually was a babe), Facebook COO Sandberg is indeed one of the richest, most powerful and successful women in the world.
That in itself says something.
And unlike the rest of her high-flying sisters-of-the-traveling-pants-suits, Sandberg has chosen to step publicly into the minefield of gender inequality. That’s brave and praise-worthy.
What all the pre-publication debate has proven is that her corporate platform is probably a more effective place to sermonize from than even a political office.
Still, with Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the particular brand of business lib that Sandberg is preaching might not appeal to many women, or even men at this point. It's all about reaching the top rungs of corporate America, as if that were a noble dream.
“Women are not making it to the top of any profession in the world,” says Sandberg. “But when I say the blunt truth is that men run the world, people say, ‘Really?’ That, to me, is the problem.”
She calls it climbing a jungle gym rather than a ladder, and posits that women block their own way.
She has been attacked for that message, for blaming the victim. Of course we should call on the government to subsidize child care, but she’s working from the inside out, talking about something deeper.
Forty or so years out from “Free to Be… You and Me,” Sandberg writes that “Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance.... My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”
But a funny thing happens on the way to ridding ourselves of these “internal barriers.”
“Success and likeability are inversely correlated for (women),” she writes. “In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others…We put ourselves down before others can as a means of emotional survival.”
I thought I was the only one who did that. I belonged to the Padded Shoulder generation of feminists, but I thought that by now, young women felt more confident.
But Sandberg’s research shows that for all of the ambitious women at college graduation starting their professional lives, there are precious few attaining the C-suites. (There hasn’t been much progress in those numbers in the last decade.) And it also happens at ad agencies, and any other hierarchical organizations.
Two things are missing from the conversation here: First, many of the women of my generation left large law firms and big companies to start their own businesses, where they could take advantage of flexible hours and their own EQs (emotional intelligence). And they have flourished.
Second, Sandberg never ventures outside of Silicon Valley to acknowledge the truly sucky economy. As a result of these lean years, many companies are just not hiring -- and if they do, are not giving out raises, no matter how much you learn to lean in. (These are truly first-world problems. Left out entirely of the conversation are women of color, and the lions' share of workers who are paid by the hour.)
But we wouldn’t demand a Jack Welch to cover those subjects in a business memoir/manifesto. And to her credit, Sandberg gives up a surprising amount of embarrassing personal information about her weaknesses and foibles. Probably with the help of her co-writer, the very funny journalist and TV showrunner Nell Scovell, she manages to avoid corporate cliches altogether. There’s neither a “deep dive” or “drill down” to be found.
That famous sound bite about Sandberg getting home to dinner with her husband and two small children every night at 5:30 is hokum. But she does make a good point in saying that women must choose partners who honor their ambitions, and agree to a 50/50 partnership at home from the start. (Apparently, she did.)
And that’s one of the things we can hate her for. That, and for how rich she is. (I also got a little tired of hearing about her organizational fetishes, via color-tabbed spreadsheets.)
But Sandberg has obviously worked her ass off, and continues to. And she really didn't have to make this stand. She strenuously explains that it is her personal vision, separating the whole issue from her life at Facebook.
Sandberg actually predicts all the eye-rolling from others, admitting that everyone warned her she’d be typecast not as a COO, but as someone into ”this woman thing.”
Still, this is obviously her passion. “I could see the dynamics playing out in the work force, and that, in order to fix these problems, we needed to be able to talk about gender without people thinking we were crying for help, asking for special treatment, or about to sue.”
Say it, sister. That’s a pretty great statement among many about the need for greater diversity in the ranks of business, no matter how much it rankles or annoys us to speak about it at this point.
But here it is in a nutshell: “Many people believe that the workplace is largely a meritocracy, which we means we look at individuals, not groups, and determine that differences in outcomes must be based on merit, not gender. Men at the top are often unaware of they benefits they enjoy simply because they’re men, and this can make them blind to the disadvantages associated with being a woman. Women lower down also believe that men at the top are entitled to be there, so they try to play by the rules and work harder to advance rather than raise questions...As a result, everyone becomes complicit in perpetuating an unjust system.”
Sandberg’s the only one walking the talk, no matter how expensive her heels her. So lean in on that.