Who’s Afraid of Sheryl Sandberg?

Who’s Afraid of Sheryl Sandberg?

Feminists were quick—too quick—to question the Facebook COO's motives for writing Lean In, her self-help manifesto.


Sheryl Sandberg. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

With the publication of Lean In, a feminist-accented self-help book for college-educated young women with bright prospects, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg provoked such wrath among feminists that some of them couldn’t even wait to read the book before condemning it as a rich woman’s vanity project. Talk about leaning in! She’s been mocked as a Silicon Valley Marie Antoinette. She’s been equated with Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO who scorns feminism and abolished working from home for her employees—never mind that Sandberg embraces feminism, the word and the movement, and devoted three whole chapters to combining work and family life in saner, fairer ways. The trouble is not that women are attacking women, but that they are using sexist tropes. Melissa Gira Grant, for example, chides Sandberg for having “staff to help keep house, raise her children and throw her women’s leadership dinners.” Grant means to contrast Sandberg’s privileges with the insecure lives of working-class women (not that she knows how much Sandberg and her husband pay their staff, or even that they are women). But the very fact that the morality of hiring nannies and cleaners and—no! not that!—caterers pops up only when a powerful woman is discussed shows how gendered the attack on Sandberg is. Message to Grant: these people work for Sandberg’s husband too.

After this storm of outrage—let’s not forget two vituperative columns from Maureen Dowd and a front-page New York Times story by Jodi Kantor that uses an out-of-context half-quote to make Sandberg sound like the would-be Queen of Feminism—the book itself comes as a pleasant surprise. Sandberg’s voice is modest, humorous, warm and enthusiastic. (I should mention that I attended a dinner she hosted for women writers and found her much the same in person.) She’s like someone who’s just taken Women’s Studies 101 and wants to share it with her friends. Did you know that women apply for jobs only when they are 100 percent qualified, but men apply at 60 percent? That even incredibly accomplished women think they’re frauds about to be found out? That women are caught in a double bind between femininity and ambition? Have you read Alice Walker? She repeatedly acknowledges her own advantages: comfortable middle-class upbringing, Harvard degree, mentoring from Larry Summers, and now enormous wealth and the power to—parental nirvana!—leave the office at 5:30. She does not claim to speak for or to every woman, nor does she blame women for the stalled gender revolution. She cites study after study showing that the deck is stacked against women: discrimination is real, the old boy network is real, the difficulties of raising children while working full time are real. She constantly talks about the need for men to be equal partners at home and to support women at work.

Yes, Sandberg emphasizes individual initiative: Given the pervasiveness of sexism, how can women help themselves? Her critics don’t want to hear from psychology, and yet it’s true enough that women put themselves down in order to be liked, don’t speak up in public, wait to be asked. Much of what she says struck me as applicable to many women I know, including myself. How many conversations have I had with young women writers covering just this terrain: Will they think you’re vain and grabby if you ask for more money? How can you hold your own in a crowd of hyper-aggressive male writers all furiously promoting themselves? That thing about sitting in the corner doing your good work and assuming it will be rewarded because that’s what happened in school? Fear of stretching yourself, of taking risks? Sigh. By the time I finished the book, my life looked like a blighted wasteland of missed opportunities. 

Of course, personal effort is hardly the whole story. I know women who have leaned in for a lifetime and been passed over. But it’s hard to see what’s wrong with encouraging big dreams, giving pointers on sexist bosses and salary negotiations, and telling women who join the mommy track before they even have a boyfriend not to lean back: “Don’t leave before you leave.” 

Obviously, much of Lean In is not directly helpful to working-class women, who need unions, daycare, paid sick days and legal protections from discrimination more than a pep talk. Still, you don’t have to be climbing the corporate ladder—or, as Sandberg would call it, the jungle gym—to find her message useful. Don’t marry a man who isn’t egalitarian? Good plan! Be more confident? Excellent advice. Between the CEO and the janitor are millions of professionals, businesswomen, managers and freelancers who will find the book cheering, eye-opening, perhaps even inspiring.

If you see Sandberg as promoting individual success over collective solidarity, as some of her leftier critics have, it’s easy to find her, at best, naïve. But the truth is, the sexist system in which we are embedded is not very responsive to personal or collective efforts. Even in the social democracies of Western Europe, where ordinary women live much better than their American counterparts, it is so hard to combine a career with child-rearing that lots of ambitious women just don’t have kids. In Scandinavia, mothers work—but mostly at routine jobs in government bureaucracies. There, as here, a woman has to be better than a man to get half as far. Men still run the show, mostly for their own benefit. 

If social support and job protections for mothers aren’t the whole solution to women’s subordination, they are of course an essential part of it. I’m all for them; and guess what? Sheryl Sandberg is too. Advocates don’t help the cause, however, by making it seem completely dreary to be a working mother. That just fuels the false perception that opting out is best for the family. What if the next generation just skips the job and heads for the delivery room?

Meanwhile, I’m buying a copy of Lean In for my daughter and one for my stepdaughter, too.

As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, writes Ann Jones, women’s rights advocates there plan to carry on their fierce, lonely fight.

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