The main takeaways from Sheryl Sandberg's "60 Minutes" and "Diane Rehm" interviews to promote her new book, Lean In, are solid but recycled messages for already-empowered women to ask for that raise, take risks, don't be a people pleaser and get the husband to do his fare share at home. Yada yada.
Yesterday, as I perused the aisles of Wal-Mart in Clearwater FL, I thought about her assertion on "60 Minutes" that "These messages are completely universal." I wondered how useful her words would be to the obese, poor-looking mother of three pushing a cart full of junk food, or the tattooed, pale-faced check out girl, 17ish, sporting a fresh post-baby tummy. Truth is, they are more likely to get retaliated against for asking for a raise or speaking up at a low wage job and yelled at or ignored for asking for help at home. At that moment, Sandberg's insistence on the universality of her message seemed as out of touch as Mitt Romney encouraging college students struggling to pay tuition to "borrow money from your parents" if you have to.
As I pushed my cart down the Wal-Mart candy aisle, I took out my iPhone and Googled Sandberg's "Early Life" on Wikipedia. It turns out she grew up just a few hundred miles away in North Miami. Standing next to me in the aisle ogling gummy bears was a little girl whose haggard mother wore a dark blue work uniform. I wondered what would have become of a young Sheryl if she and this little girl had a "Freaky Friday" moment, where they magically swapped parents and gummy bear girl was transported to North Miami to be raised by an MD father and Ph.D./teacher mother (details expertly side-stepped on yesterday's "Diane Rehm" Show, by describing her family as "traditional"). Would Sandberg still have become the COO of Facebook in this "Freaky Friday" scenario? I felt a pang of sadness for the little girl standing next to me whose true potential will likely never be realized, and uneasy recalling Sandberg's "60 Minutes" example of risk taking; accepting a job offered to her by the head of Google BEFORE knowing the job title or her exact role. It just seemed so 100% 1%.
While all parents have their shortcomings, I would guess Sandberg was never told, "you're not good enough for that!" Just being the daughter of two highly-educated, stable, married, encouraging parents likely infused her with a "cultural confidence and competence" to conquer the mightiest Ivory Tower. She was WAY ahead of the game before she ever dreamt of Harvard. While meeting Larry Summers, political acumen and working hard catapulted her into the stratosphere of the ultra elite, her home life gave her the foundation to know how to recognize and utilize opportunities. Harvard was just a stop on the way to gather more tools and golden eggs. From the beginning, Sandberg had what all kids deserve, but most do not get.
Relatively few students get into the Ivy League because they posses a pure raw intelligence, a stellar work ethic and nothing else. (Yes there are a few, and I know one, too.) Most kids who go to elite schools at minimum, have had good nutrition to allow their brain to grow so they can concentrate, an absence of extreme abuse or neglect for basic emotional regulation, and most importantly, one adult in their life who cares about their well-being, education and is intelligent and stable enough to support that child's aspirations rather than keep them mired in chaos. Parents and parenting matter.
Sandberg's effort to empower already educated women with re-treaded career advice (peppered with a few "everywoman" anecdotes to illustrate main points) is NOT a social movement. It's exposure to increase name recognition for a potential political run or lobby for a top political post (perhaps one never held by a woman?). Most smart, hard-working women in the world have not had opportunity to make it to the top, but many have the potential and are in need of an honest champion. Three things Sheryl Sandberg could do to REALLY change the world are:
1. Use HER political influence to advocate for equal pay and high quality child care for ALL: If women attain one 1,000th of Sandberg's bargaining power or wage and have a safe place to drop their kids off when they go to work, she will have made this a better country. Relieved of constant struggle and worry, women can contribute more to the economy with increased productivity and buying power and use their freed up brainpower to take a shot their dreams.
2. Lead a REAL social movement for Early Childhood Development (ECD): Forget hurricanes and the Sequester, this is the sleeper issue of the next quarter century (at least). Whoever takes on ECD will have a mighty legacy. How we invest now will help determine economic productivity, social stability and mobility in the U.S. for decades to come. Sandberg is a shining example of what it looks like when children are invested in early on. The flipside can be seen nightly on The Tampa 5 O'clock news. The data is staggering and there is some political will. Sandberg is uniquely placed to deliver the message to business leaders and policy makers that that ECD is not a cute effort to help poor kids, but a smart public policy investment with ROI for the future of the county.
3. Lead by example, and get more women on the Facebook Board: Also, conveniently not mentioned in the interview yesterday: Until March 2013 (yes, this month), Sandberg was the ONLY WOMAN on the Facebook board, with seven men. Seriously!?!?
There are very few people in the world who wield the power to make large-scale social change. Sandberg is blessed with the good fortune to be one of them. I hope she will dig deep, spending social and actual capital to be a champion for those who have limited political and economic power à la Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. THAT would be "keepin' it real" in the risk-taking department. Some social movements are started from the top, but to be successful, they have to include and benefit the maginalized. Sandberg's current effort is surprising in its lack of ambition and potential for real impact. It is kind of like being tapped to lead a revolution, but opting for a bake sale. (Sorry, but it's true.) If she is serious about empowering women, she can put her considerable talent, resources and reach toward helping kids get the nurturing she had growing up, and decent pay she has enjoyed since entering the workforce.
Before tackling that, Sandberg should thank her lucky stars she was born to her parents, who helped her to become the smart, ambitious, woman she is. (I'm sure she is a wonderful daughter, has thanked them profusely, and made them very proud.)