Commentary

Sandberg, Sexism, And The C-Suite

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.

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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.

28 comments about "Sandberg, Sexism, And The C-Suite".
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  1. Kate Berg from Collective Bias, March 14, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.

    I wish I had written this piece Barbara. Really well said and refreshing to see a balanced appraisal of an important book penned by one of this era's most successful business leaders -man or woman. Made my day.

  2. Laurence Rutter from Rudders & Moorings Yacht Sales, March 14, 2013 at 6:55 p.m.

    Really? Seems like women are doing quite well, thank you very much. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/most-powerful-women/

  3. Lisa Gangadeen from The 33480 Group LLC, March 14, 2013 at 6:55 p.m.

    We need more Sheryl Sandbergs in the world today! Gynormous KUDOS to Sheryl for being outspoken and crystal clear on her positions! I'll leave it at that!

    Lisa Gangadeen, President/Owner, The 33480 Group LLC
    www.facebook.com/the33480group

  4. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, March 14, 2013 at 6:55 p.m.

    As always, Barbara, your thoughts and writing are sharp witted, funny and right on target. I would add that the timing of Sandberg's media blitz, coinciding with Marissa Mayer's edict that Yahoos cannot continue to work from home, added to the controversy. It was time for an update on the debate on women and the workplace, but as you correctly point out, this economy is tough for everyone who doesn't have diploma from Harvard, Yale or Stanford and a golden career path. Try getting any kind of work if you're a professional over 50, regardless of gender. Just about impossible.

  5. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , March 14, 2013 at 7:24 p.m.

    everyone has been saying the same thing for centureis and we laud the men . Why do we crtiicize Sheryl ..

    What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” — addressing the self-doubt that still holds many women back. Sheryl Sandberg
    To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men - that is genius. Emerson
    Because the People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do . Steve jobs
    You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
    -Wayne Gretzky
    If you can dream it, you can do it!
    Walt Disney

  6. Alex Lekas from PTI Security, March 14, 2013 at 8:51 p.m.

    So Sandberg lives in a bubble. Here's my shocked face. This is a woman who mistakes "internal barriers" for no-shit biological differences between men and women. Not every man aspires to be in her shoes, let alone every woman. The biggest piece of aspirational porn sold to us is this notion of 'having it all.' You can't, at least not at the same time. For some aspect of life to soar, another must give. Life is balance; decide for yourself what means most to you. The c-suite is overrated; life is too damn short to be checking email at 11pm on a Tuesday.

  7. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 14, 2013 at 9:30 p.m.

    Barbara... You hit the nail on the head with this... "Sandberg never ventures outside of Silicon Valley to acknowledge the truly sucky economy." The Digerati of the valley truly live in a bubble, even though they are the high Priests & Princesses of social networking... They only network with each other. Unlike someone working less than 30 hours a week at Wal-Mart, they even get to bring their bloody dog to work. This is not the world 99% of America lives in... And it makes no difference whether you are a man or a woman.
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 14, 2013 at 9:47 p.m.

    Hers is one point of view whether we agree or not. Some points are even valid. But it sure is easier to give advise once looking down from an ivory tower. Now will someone put her path and Gladwell's pathways together and come up with the formula ?

    PS: You have a lot of support of joining The View.

  9. Patrick Di Chiro from THUNDER FACTORY / Di Chiro, March 15, 2013 at 12:42 a.m.

    Barbara, thank you for your well reasoned post on a complicated, highly charged, and very important subject. Being the billionaire, Ivy League, Silicon Valley royalty that she is, Sheryl Sandberg was always destined to run into a buzzsaw for what I believe to be her sincere advice for women. I admire her for having the guts to put herself out there, knowing full well that she would get attacked. As the old saying goes: "No good deed goes unpunished." No doubt Ms. Sandberg today knows the truth of that bit of wisdom all too well.

  10. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, March 15, 2013 at 8:08 a.m.

    I'd like her more if she said she got home to "supper" at 5:30 instead of "dinner"....but it is credible that she showed up....perhaps she started her day early....say at 4:30 AM.....the west coast generally is an earlier day.....in finance, of course, but other areas too....how did her husband get home at 5:30? how did the kids get there? the best quote above could lead to an interesting read if she described the brilliant flame-outs, the lost connections, the luck good and bad.......i guess i have to read the book now and i don't really want to as i haven't read an advice book since "How to win friends and influence people" and i dropped out of that at page 12. Good column, though.

  11. Pamela Horovitz from Internet Video Archive, March 15, 2013 at 10:18 a.m.

    I would bet that Sandberg, whether she knew it or not, wrote the book for a relatively limited audience: women who are trying to climb a corporate ladder. In that sense, we should all applaud the increasing normalcy of things like men staying at home to raise the kids that would make this book apply to men as well as women. Barbara does pull the best quote of the book, one that applies to everyone, whether you're in corporate America or not: it's all about resilience.

  12. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 15, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.

    Thanks for all the insightful comments, ye commenters!
    @Alex-- agree that "having it all" is aspirational porn" and even Sheryl has a chapter in the book that says so. I was really limited in my word count, so couldn't get into that, or the fact that her mentor, and then boss at "Treasury" was Larry Summers, who famously "misspoke" about womens' abilities in science. He also make a cameo in the the Facebook movie (played an actor) dissing the Winkelvoss twins, but also dissing the idea that "The Facebook" would ever work.

  13. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 15, 2013 at 11:28 a.m.

    @George-- totally agree.
    But this book actually came out of two big speeches she made-- to TED-women, where it was met with resounding applause, and commencement at Barnard College.
    @Laurence-- yes, women are doing fine in some areas, and prospered compared with men during the downturn. But now it seems to be going the other way.
    The funny thing is that it all started because Sheryl and Marissa Mayer and two or three other women at Google felt so unrepresented, that they hired Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem to speak there! Gloria invited Sheryl to Ted women and the rest is history. And that makes it even more bizarre that Marissa resists the "militance" of being labeled a feminist.

  14. marnie delaney from doodlebug, March 15, 2013 at 12:40 p.m.

    Barbara, your point about resisting the "militant" label of feminist is particularly puzzling given her stated goal of advocating for women and providing insights and guidance to them. It seems to me a bit of a slap at the admittedly feminist women who preceded her. Unfortunate.

  15. Fiona Fine from WomenWhoRunIt.com, March 15, 2013 at 12:57 p.m.

    Barbara - I gotta love any woman who is willing to start a commentary with the word "shit storm"(you!) and a corporate woman who is willing to go on the record about her income, her choices and her climb up a corporate ladder (who knows if she is on the "right" ladder!) and be critiqued for her life (Sandberg). No we OBVIOUSLY can't have it all in life unless we first define what " ALL" means to us as an individual. Sandberg's targeted audience is obviously corporate climbers or those of us that have left the ranks as it didn't serve us. Your gift of pulling out the one line (resiliency) made my day as I face work challenges as it is the ability to bend under criticism that allows us to live life on our terms. We as women have to stop needing to be liked by the world to be able to step into our voice. Kudos on a great review - I will actually read the damn thing just because of you (grin) Fiona Fine Editor-In-Chief http://www.WomenWhoRunIt.com

  16. Kate Berg from Collective Bias, March 15, 2013 at 1:48 p.m.

    @marnie not that i think barbara needs my defense, but i think her point is that militance was required (Webster: "engaged in warfare or combat") in the case of Sandberg's (and our) predecessors but that we have gotten to a more "peaceful" place in our work in the area of feminism. While I think a whole new generation of women needs to understand this charged word is an asset and not to be feared, (and that we all better be feminists or we're all dead on this planet) Sandberg is stating the point that we are largely in control of our own destinies now and women need to engage in smart, persuasive hard work "battle" --not agressive, pugnacity.

  17. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 15, 2013 at 1:55 p.m.

    Marnie-- yes, what I meant was that I could not understand how Marissa would say she does not identify herself as a feminist when she had been a part of the Google/women group. She has no excuse, therefore, about being uninformed.
    I find her disinterest in speaking up for women, and seeing herself as a role model, very disappointing.

  18. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 15, 2013 at 1:56 p.m.

    THe opposite of Sandberg.

  19. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 15, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.

    Barbara... Just an aside. Nothing to do with the actual subject of the book... But why do these Captains - Captainesses (Is there such a word?) Who have conquered the peaks of Corporate Management, overcoming the slings and arrows etc., on their climb up the executive ladder... Need a bloody Co-Author to write their boiler plate screed? Couldn't they dash off a quick chapter of their inspirational masterpiece when they get home at 5.25 PM to zap the Dominoes pizza they picked up on the way home. Sorry, along with fellow "Old Fart" Tom, I need help here.
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  20. Fiona Fine from WomenWhoRunIt.com, March 16, 2013 at 1:18 p.m.

    @George: for any other mere mortal woman, I would say Sandberg needed a co-author because she "just couldn't fit one more g#ddamn thing" into an already packed life. NOT an excuse but ever thought about the old adage: "better done than perfect"? Or who knows maybe she hates to write...FF

  21. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 16, 2013 at 3:48 p.m.

    @Fiona...
    At least she didn't marry her ghost writer like Jack "Neutron" Welch did. Who as part of his mega-million GE golden parachute got free vitamins for life... Vitamins being code for Viagra.
    Cheers/George

  22. Farnaz Wallace from Farnaz Global, LLC, March 18, 2013 at 12:47 p.m.

    Great article, Barbara, well articulated and summarized. I think there is a "missed" fact with Sandberg having lived an "elite" lifestyle before reaching the top, which makes all the difference in the world--for both women and men. There is something truly meaningful in overcoming life adversities that emerging women leaders can emotionally connect to....and tough times at work is just part of working ... and just ain't enough. I admire Sandberg's courage in pointing to women for solutions instead of blaming men. I also wish that more feminist thought leaders would address why women prefer to work for men versus other women (a key issue to address) plus the need for "smart powers" which is blend of hard and soft powers-- instead of aggressive, dominating powers as only means to succeed--which is not where we want to go as women leaders of the new world.

  23. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 18, 2013 at 1:08 p.m.

    Yes, Farnaz. The answer all around is flexibility. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to anything, as Marissa Mayer has to learn! As for the work for men issue, Sandberg does mention that when the first generation of corp women started working 30 years ago, there were only male mentors available. She also mentions "The Queen Bee" Syndrome-- of women not helping other women.(sadly, many women have encountered this. This was something else I had hoped there'd be more progress on by now.)At least we're talking about it. That's progress, thank you Sheryl Sandberg.

  24. Farnaz Wallace from Farnaz Global, LLC, March 18, 2013 at 3:29 p.m.

    @Barbara, thanks and agree. Marissa Mayer fits the masculine/hard power/conquest-n-dominate/old school leadership model that we need to encourage women to steer away from. Her anti-flex move was one of the main reasons I wrote my recent blog on 3 missing components on developing future leaders, and I'm moderating a panel on this next month...check it out: http://www.farnazglobal.com/developing-the-next-generation-of-leaders-3-missing-components/

  25. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 18, 2013 at 10:55 p.m.

    Barbara... Never forget Mary Wells, she founded WRG over 50 years ago, and she didn't need male mentors. (Except, maybe, Bill Bernbach) She kicked arse. I know, I worked with her. A truly brilliant lady.
    Cheers/George

  26. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 18, 2013 at 11 p.m.

    George--Marrying the client helped her a lot, no?
    Also a classic Queen Bee. Or am I mistaken?

  27. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 18, 2013 at 11:27 p.m.

    Barbara... Dead right. But she was smart enough to make him marry her and not just be a bit of stuff on the side! I worked with her first husband, Bert, at B&B. Nice guy. But couldn't keep up with Mary. He got the divorce, she got the villa on Cap Ferat! But... Having said all that. She was a brilliant writer at DDB and one of the smartest business people I ever knew. And unlike Ms. Sandberg, she was not born into money. Quite the reverse. She didn't just "Lean In" she jumped in with both feet.
    Cheers/George

  28. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 18, 2013 at 11:28 p.m.

    Barbara...
    Go to bed.
    Cheers/George

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