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Nisha Chittal

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On The Sheryl Sandberg Backlash

Posted: 02/25/2013 5:19 pm

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will To Lead, comes out on March 11. Simultaneously, Sandberg will launch the non-profit Lean In Foundation, which aims to provide women with training, support and resources for career success. Sandberg's philosophy encourages women to "lean in" to their careers and pursue their ambitions. Her exhortations to women are backed up by much research that shows women often quietly hold themselves back in the workplace in ways that men don't, frequently because women are afraid of being penalized for being perceived as aggressive or ambitious.

Women are abuzz about Lean In, but surprisingly, a lot of the chatter is negative. Critics claim she blames women for their problems, that she should really be changing the system instead of telling women what to do. That she can't possibly give advice to regular women since she is a Harvard grad/privileged/got lucky/had good mentors/is wealthy. She doesn't cater her advice to low-income women/non-corporate women/blue-collar jobs/single mothers, therefore, her advice is invalid. She has a 9,000-square-foot house, so she's disqualified from being a feminist leader. She is rich, so she can't give regular women advice on what to do.

How often do we hear these criticisms lobbed at men writing career advice books? As reporter Heidi N. Moore said on Twitter, "I mean, no man reads Good to Great worrying that it doesn't sympathize with guys working at McDonald's." The monumental pressure on Sandberg to represent and address every single woman's circumstances is unfair. And because she doesn't meet every expectation, critics dismiss her book and her message as out of touch. One person I know went as far as to question how Sandberg treats the cleaning staff at Facebook HQ. Maureen Dowd devoted her New York Times column Sunday to calling Sandberg an "it girl" whose mission is "not to sell a cause, but herself."

The twisted reasoning behind women tearing down Sheryl Sandberg is that we have so few examples of powerful women that we hold the few that we do have -- like Sandberg -- up to impossibly high standards and expect them to represent all women everywhere. We never expect a powerful man to represent all types of men in all demographics and income brackets and personal circumstances.

Rebecca Traister wrote about this phenomenon in her book, Big Girls Don't Cry, about women in the 2008 elections. In her book, Traister argues that we need more examples of women in leadership roles in order to improve how powerful women overall are perceived. "The limited models of powerful women prompt us to hold those few women who are powerful up to terrifically high (and often gender essentialist) standards," Traister says. "We still expect our women leaders to be more thoughtful, kinder, more collaborative, more eager to listen, more nurturing than their male peers. Expanded versions of female power -- even disappointing versions -- will help us adjust our eyes and our expectations, and remind us that if parity is really what we're seeking, we're not just going to have admirable and inspiring female role models, but also unreliable and preening one."

In BuzzFeed last month, Anna North wrote: "When a woman is one of the very few of her gender who gets to a position of power, she is supposed to represent all women, a pretty much impossible task." By putting so much pressure on Sandberg to be a practically superhuman representative of all women, we are inadvertently proving one of Sandberg's points: that women in power are held to much higher standards and subjected to more scrutiny than men in power.

As feminists, we are frequently disappointed when women in the highest echelons of society distance themselves from feminism. Marissa Mayer famously announced that she does not consider herself a feminist. But Sandberg hasn't shied away from feminism -- instead, she has embraced it and made it her mission. Sheryl Sandberg is exactly what feminist activists hope for: a woman who is at the highest levels of corporate America who is using her powerful position and platform to push for gender equality. A powerful woman using her position for good, supporting other women through the release of a very buzzy book whose proceeds will go towards the launch of a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting women.

And yet, now women are tearing Sandberg down -- many without even reading her book, which still isn't publicly available for another two weeks -- even though feminists and Sandberg share a common goal of gender equality. Of course, it doesn't have to be all holding hands and singing kumbaya: Debate and discussion are crucial to the healthy growth of any social movement, but divisiveness is not. By distancing themselves from a prominent feminist like Sandberg rather than discussing how to work together with Sandberg to achieve our shared goal of gender equality, feminists run the risk of sabotaging our progress and our movement.

It is true that Sandberg's approach focuses on only one aspect of solving the gender gap: What women can do as individuals to "lean in" and stop holding themselves back. The flip side to this approach is the systemic and structural changes which must happen in the workplace in order for women to be able to succeed. Anne-Marie Slaughter and many others have championed this approach, talking about the need for legislation and workplace policies that offer more flexibility and support for working parents, pregnant workers, single moms and childless workers too -- because work-life balance isn't just an issue for moms and dads but an issue for all workers.

Sandberg isn't perfect -- but who is, and why would we expect her to be perfect? There is plenty of room for discussion about how Sandberg's movement can be most effective. Sandberg is cognizant of the fact that her approach is only tackling one side of the issue, and addresses that right away in the first chapter of Lean In and recognizes the need for tackling systemic issues as well. But the solution to achieving gender parity isn't either/or: it's both. We need the system to change and we need more family-friendly policies at work, but as individuals we can also do more to push our own careers forward and encourage other women to do the same.

In order to make structural changes at the top that benefit women as a whole, we first need more women in top leadership roles who have the power to make those changes. And to get there, first we need to encourage more women to take Sandberg's advice to "lean in" to their careers and aim for the top. In order to fully solve the problem of gender inequality, we need to work together with Sandberg to tear down the both the internal and external obstacles that hold women back -- rather than work against Sandberg.

 

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