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The Feminism of Sheryl Sandberg

My Guardian column this week is about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In, and how I was prepared to totally hate the message but ended up pretty impressed:

Like nearly every feminist tome before it, it’s not a perfect book. But it’s a very good one, and it’s a crucial call to action.

It’s also coming from an unlikely place. There are very few women at the top, and many of them got there by figuring out how to play nice with the boys. Penning a feminist manifesto is not exactly the way to win friends on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. Sandberg did what feminists are always asking powerful women in business and politics to do – stand up for gender equality – which is why it’s so disappointing to see many in the feminist camp essentially telling her to shut up and sit down.

Will more women at the tippy-top of our institutions of power and influence mean more woman-friendly policies and increased gender equality generally, as Sandberg suggests? I don’t know. There are so few women in positions of power that all of them are by definition outliers, and their actions aren’t indicative of much. But the more powerful women exist, the more normalized female power becomes. And the normalization of female authority and influence is good for all women.

Which is why I’m glad Sandberg is speaking out. I’m glad she’s using her platform to help give women the tools to succeed, and to encourage all of us to go out and get what we want. The real strength of Lean In is in its Rosie the Riveter 2.0 message: “You can do it! Here’s how.”

There has to be that balance between You Go Girl cheerleading and clear-eyed assessment of the challenges women face. Women today receive startlingly mixed messages about success. Barbie might be a doctor, but women can’t “have it all”. We should be good smart girls who work hard in school, but everyone hates Tracy Flick. We can be whatever we want to be, but if we enter the professional world we’re treated to endless female-centric panels on “work-life balance” – as if balancing work and life is solely a women’s issue. We should achieve highly, but we shouldn’t be ambitious or self-promotional or competitive with men. We need to perform better than our male peers, but we can’t be too threatening – smile, sister, and wear a more feminine suit.

In the real world, women are under-payed at every level of employment. We’re disproportionately concentrated in poorly-compensated “pink collar” jobs that often involve care work. Americans live in the only developed nation that offers no federally mandated maternity leave, not to mention sick days or vacation. Federally-funded childcare seems like a pipe dream; livable wages, comprehensive benefits and collective bargaining arrangements for all workers feel similarly far off.

Men gain innumerable benefits simply by virtue of being men. They’re perceived as more competent and more hirable, are offered higher starting salaries than identical female candidates, and tend to be promoted on the basis of their perceived potential, while women need to show past accomplishments. As women become more successful, they’re perceived as less likable; for men, it’s the opposite. Only 9% of dual-earner households report equal sharing of childcare and household responsibilities, and full-time working mothers do 30% more house work and 40% more childcare than their husbands.

Almost all of the above paragraph, by the way, is culled from information in Sandberg’s book; some issues, like the likability gap and the lack of parity on the domestic front, get their own chapters.

Women face very real barriers, men are given very real unearned benefits, and these are collective social problems. This isn’t all in our heads, and it can’t be fixed with an individual attitude adjustment. But on an individual level, we can take steps that both better our own lives and help pave the way for institutional changes. We do need to focus on our own completely logical but ultimately self-defeating internal responses to all the external cues we receive. Advocating for ourselves, taking risks and staying in the game may not always work out in exactly the way we want, but it’s better than shrugging our shoulders and waiting for The System to change itself.

The whole thing is here. And if you’re in the UK, you can find the piece in the paper on Sunday (yes, I am very excited to be in a real print newspaper).

25 thoughts on The Feminism of Sheryl Sandberg

  1. But can you forgive Sandberg for telling the NY Times she chose to focus on internal stuff because external stuff gets attention already? The external, structural barriers are totally taboo in the MSM. So yesterday. It’s all in your head, ladies.

  2. Personally, this is one thing that the MAKERS documentary got right — that firsts are important and that representation in the elite and upper eschalons is also important. These people not only become role models and beacons for the rest of us lowly drones, but also normalize and demystify female power in all its forms.

    I go back and forth on this (see: Linda Hirshman), but I feel pretty confident about a few things: We have to stop holding individuals responsible for structural problems. We have to stop expecting our female leaders to be perfect and expect them to represent feminism (which one?) perfectly. We should not be afraid — if an when it’s possible and it’s something we want/need to succeed/live — to pursue individual solutions for individual problems despite structural obstacles.

      1. They don’t disagree much. Dowd is uncharitable, as she always is to successful women (especially ones who have husbands or children), but her message overlaps about 80% with Jill’s.

  3. As someone who hasn’t read the book, but has read and watched a lot of Sandberg’s other work on this topic, I’m still unconvinced. Even if one accepts that getting more women into positions of power is something that should be focused on, her advice seems to make that goal less attainable. Instead of telling women to work harder and longer hours in order to get more power over other women, why isn’t she telling men to work fewer hours, or even better, advocating that women join together and agree to work less until their demands for better work-place policies are met? I mean, maybe that’s in the book, but I have no idea how any of this advice is useful unless it advocates that women cooperate, so no one steps over anyone else’s head if there’s a conflict with those opposing equality. I mean, does this book even push anyone to fight at all, or identify specific enemies that should be fought? Otherwise, if there’s no conflict, and there’s no joining of women together in that conflict, there will only be backsliding, not progress. So to boil it down, my two questions are: Does Sandberg identify any specific enemies to equality other than women themselves (and abstract references to bad policies, without targeting the employers who maintain such policies), and does she advocate that women work together for advancement, instead of just offering self-help tips for how to win a zero-sum game?

    1. From what I’ve read, she is hoping that woman form groups to support each other. I don’t think, if what I’ve read is correct, fault her for that much.

  4. The thing that concerns me (well besides the wealthy het white viewpoint, which leaves a huge percentage of women out) is that the things that she’s advocating – speak out, don’t be afraid to push, don’t be afraid to take up space – are not really available to trans women. When we take that advice, we get cis women telling *us* that *we* are taking up too much space, that *we* are exhibiting male behavior. So cis women who are trying to break through those barriers wind up enforcing those same barriers against trans women (and, really, against all gender non-conforming people).

    And how does her advice help a poor single mom who’s holding down two or three crap jobs just to survive? There’s an awful lot more of those women than there are at the rarefied economic level that Sandburg exists at, I think.

    1. The thing that concerns me (well besides the wealthy het white viewpoint, which leaves a huge percentage of women out)…. …..And how does her advice help a poor single mom who’s holding down two or three crap jobs just to survive?

      If her feminism isn’t intersectional (which it isn’t, demonstrated by the quote above), then it is bullshit. That’s all I need to know, the end.

  5. I think that in general the feminist- and broadly, social justice- movements have a problem with demanding that anyone who speaks out needs to be perfect. We’re all flawed; none of us are ideal feminists/anti-racists/allies of any given group. It’s still really valuable when high-profile people advance the cause, especially (as in this case) in a pretty nuanced, intelligent way.

    I think the social justice blogosphere is almost entirely an awesome thing, but it has a nasty habit of one-upmanship. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be serious criticism and discussion of the problematic things people say (or don’t say). That’s really important, too. But shutting down anyone who doesn’t get everything right 100% of the time is self-defeating.

    1. I agree with this. It feels like the demands on any one individual is impossible. It’s frustrating that there are so few women with platforms so there are so few voices being heard, but I don’t think the solution to that is to quiet the ones that are there. It’s to try and use them as a wedge to get more voices in. Which is not easy because of structural barriers, but I think everyone’s starting point in this day and age (at least on a blog like this) is that we all need to be pushing and pushing at the structural barriers.

      I also think a lot of the policies these wealthy, white executive class women are advocating do have clear application to the lives of non-wealthy, white and non-white non-executive class women. The consistent takeaway I’ve seen in every article on this issue is that the US needs mandatory paid sick leave, mandatory maternity leave, and better protections against pregnancy discrimination. I also see raising awareness of the structural biases in how women are perceived that affect promotion and pay. These issues are directly relevant to a minimum-wage female worker in Walmart who’s been denied promotion while her male co-workers are sent upwards in the glass elevator.

      Some of the specifics of Sandberg’s advice among others are not necessarily applicable beyond the circle of women on her career track. Flex time is important, but isn’t an option for a lot of pink collar low-wage work. Leaning in isn’t the most important thing for certain careers where success and promotions may help but still won’t get you anywhere near enough pay. But that doesn’t make the advice useless or bad–it just makes it specific.

  6. I don’t mean to sound snarky–you say that the book is pretty much about how ladies are allowed to be “pushy broads”–can you explain a little more how this is “impressive”? I mean, I still get the feeling that it’s still “you need to bring yourself up by your bootstraps” rather than “here’s some great workplace policies.”

  7. @aminblingalong – I completely agree with you. I’ve read lots of piece criticizing Sandberg for her exclusion/privilege and it frustrates me. Rather than taking what’s useful and important in what she says, we’re telling her to shut up, she’s saying the wrong thing? In my opinion, we – social justice types – need to do more of what Jill does in this Guardian piece: take Sandberg’s contribution as just that, a contribution, one voice that calls us into a conversation that needs to happen about a problem that exists in a multilayered way. It’s difficult to unpack every aspect of such a complicated issue. Sandberg talks about more than attitude and strategy, she talks structure, though her advice is more about the former. I think that’s okay. It doesn’t solve the whole problem and it doesn’t speak to everyone’s experience. But I’m not even close to a CEO and I found a message in there that I could take home with me – permission for my ambition, for one example. There are women who give up before they get there – that is, scale back potential career before they’ve started in the expectation of being a wife and mother. That’s problematic. Maybe some of them will her Sandberg’s work and rethink. Jill’s last (cited) paragraph is spot-on. I think it’s possible to acknowledge the rightness of what Jill says here for handling *one* aspect of the problem without falling into the trap of imagining that’s all Jill or Sandberg or whoever has to say on the subject. I’m much more about structural inequalities than personal attitude, like most social justice folks. But I do have a personal attitude that has shaped all of my experiences, as well as structural privileges/inequalities. And honestly, as f*cked up as the US is right now and how far we have to go in terms of workers’ rights, I feel like we can all say, we need subsidized childcare! we need family leave! etc until the internets explode, but we also have a reality right now that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. So there is an argument to thinking, okay inside this awful structure, what can I do to achieve my goals? That seems like a worthwhile thing to say to people. And maybe if more women lean in, and more men do their share, there will be more pressure for some of the other things we need (a decline in corporate culture, less chained to the desk, better benefits, etc).

    Of course, I also think we need to talk structure and class and race and privilege and everything that Sandberg doesn’t dig into, or doesn’t address at all. There is no solution without addressing these.

    1. Of course, I also think we need to talk structure and class and race and privilege and everything that Sandberg doesn’t dig into, or doesn’t address at all. There is no solution without addressing these.

      My frustration with Sandberg and her book is precisely this, though. Because I’m just so tired of the centering of cis, white, UMC women and their issues that so pervades mainstream, 21st Century Feminism today. I would be a whole lot more impressed with the likes of Ms. Sandberg if they were taking concrete steps to give a hand up to the non-white, non-cis/hetero, non-UMC women out there who are too often shut out of the career world.

      As a very vocal Feminist I have so many frustrating conversations with the women I know irl who feel as though Feminism has nothing to do with them. And I can’t help but I agree with them in some ways, because they don’t come anywhere close to being like the Sheryl Sandbergs and Melissa Mayers of this world. They’re often just barely getting by, and their voices and issues appear to be utterly ignored by Feminism.

      1. Have you read Sandberg’s book to know that nothing she’s saying is applicable or that she doesn’t address class/race/privilege structural issues at all? Because it sounds like from Jill’s review that Sandberg does address as much as she’s capable of while also acknowledging the limitations of her POV to discuss specific solutions for those issues. Sandberg is who she is… there’s only so far she (or any individual) can do to break down structural barriers. I don’t see what we gain by saying that those with access shouldn’t use it to speak about what they can.

        Sandberg is a tech exec. She’s not controlling who gets invited to speak at conferences or whose analysis gets put into print or articles. She has a platform because of her status as a high-ranking woman in a male-dominated field. That’s what she has the ability to talk about. Maybe, if she’s successful with her Lean In circles, she’ll develop a platform where she actually can widen who has access to speak. Maybe she won’t. I don’t think it’s productive to demand that someone does everything in order to do anything.

        I also disagree with the notion that feminism as its movements has nothing to do with lower income women. Feminism is multifaceted and there are certainly self-identified feminist writers and scholars who deal primary with white collar issues. But I’ve seen a lot of ethnographic work dealing with non-white collar, non-white women’s issues that are being done by feminist academics and presented in a feminist context. This isn’t the work that goes viral like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, but I don’t think that’s the fault of feminism as a movement.

  8. Really nice piece, Jill. I’m a bit skeptical of parts of Sandberg’s message, but I think the vitriol against her is ridiculous. It seems that she’d get a lot less criticism for taking the standard approach–keeping silent politically and simply telling the press that she’s “not a feminist but supports women” or whatever powerful women usually say.

    It would be great if we lived in a world with dozens of powerful women publishing leadership how-to’s each year, but instead we get one in a blue moon. The feminist community (and middle school bully Dowd) tearing down these rare efforts doesn’t do anything to help women’s voices get heard.

  9. Yes, I think the “nothing can be perfect” is often a silencing cop-out that doesn’t address the criticisms that are often being launched. It isn’t about perfection, it is about yet another figure/book that focuses on the needs and experiences of middle and upper-class, mostly white, cisgendered, women. Criticizing that isn’t asking for perfection, its asking for recognition. And when people are criticized for asking for equal recognition, for being irate over being erased, ignored, and overlooked, it can come across as just defense of the status quo.

    I think Jill’s piece is wonderful and encapsulates why Lean In is no doubt wonderful. I also think that people who disagree with the criticism are welcome to do so, but preferably in a way that doesn’t tell them to stop criticizing (not that Jill told them to stop). However, it can also come across as more than a bit annoying that a white lawyer is telling people continuously overlooked by the mainstream feminist movement to “stop asking for perfection”, when perfection isn’t even the goal. I think it is good to take lessons from every source, but how man books have to overlook a large segment of the feminist demographic before the vitriol becomes understandable and justified to mainstream middle and upper-class white feminists? If the authors and speakers who write these books and make these speeches are not held accountable for their ignoring of certain demographics, then how will people create a movement that does more to recognize them? And are we really suppose to play nice and not criticize, and that includes harshly criticize, someone because backlash might make them abandon their feminism or something? There has already been a piece on this site, on the issue of SAHM/W, that explained the importance of their being nothing inherently wrong with judging people and why people need to be held accountable for their choices. Its interesting if there is suppose to be more justification for harshly criticizing SAHM/W and their choices than for criticizing authors who yet again chose to write a book ignoring a large demographic.

    1. I think you’re way off base, and I say this as someone who shares basically none of Sheryl Sandbergs privileged identities. The problem isn’t the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world not writing about marginalized identities, it’s that people with those identities aren’t able to share their experiences as easily as someone with Sandberg’s privilege is. Frankly, I doubt Sandberg knows anything about what it’s like to be a poor black woman working a minimum wage job, and I doubt she’d have much that’s useful to say about that experience.

      I could probably write a pretty good book about how to get ahead as a brown dude in a mostly white field. Such a book would probably have something in that’s relevant to a brown woman in a somewhat different field, but it would center the experiences of brown dudes in my particular field, because that’s what I know. Nobody, I think, would criticize me for writing such a book. But flip the oppressions- brown to white, man to woman- and suddenly that book is no longer OK? Naw.

      Basically, I agree that it’s a huge problem when the voices/experiences of any given oppressed identity or intersection of identities isn’t being discussed widely, but I think it’s entirely absurd to blame the people who are only talking about one particular oppressed identity for that problem, so long as they’re not crowding out other voices.

      1. I had a feeling that someone would try to argue that these people are only writing about their experiences. Which would be valid to me if they didn’t also have the avenue of using their position to include the voices of other women through interviews, anthologies, guest blog posts, chapters devoted to specific perspectives, and so on. An anthology including the voices and views of marginalized women, with edited by Famous Person splashed on the cover, would go a long way in providing marginalized women another platform and a wider audience. Not writing for them, but using their own notoriety to help build a better platform for marginalized voices.

        Criticism is an acknowledgement that things aren’t perfect, and there are ways that it can be better. As long as the centering of privileged voices continues, with people who criticize this centering painted as whiny or “off base”, continues, then there is not a lot of massive push to demand that privileged women who already have wide platforms do something to center the voices of marginalized women. Lean In does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a society and a movement that continuously excuses the marginalization of a wide variety of experiences, and then pushes back at valid criticisms under the guise that “well, not everything can be for and by everyone.” Yes, but that doesn’t explain how most things are almost never about some people, and how there is a desire for that not to change.

  10. If We’re going to refer to a class of people who didn’t have universal sufferage until the 20th Century and, in many cases, didn’t have indepent economy laws in their favor, or inheritance laws, or access to higher learning, who were legally barred from most trades since the mid-1800s as ‘priviledged’ then there is something very wrong with the modern social justice movement. The backlash is already here. Yes, if other people in the various social justice/feminist movements act like assholes to white, cis women, those women will stop identifying with the feminist movements. It’s pretty simple math. We’re already seeing this.

    Look at the lack of a story Marrissa Meyer was versus the shit being flung at Sheryl Sandberg. These people aren’t stupid.

    1. Good thing criticism =/= acting like an asshole. And oppression on one spectrum does not negate privilege on another. It is possible to experience privilege due to one factor and oppression as a woman. And why the concern that supposedly committed people will leave the movement over being given criticism as opposed to the concern of alienating large portions of the population by constantly marginalizing them, and then telling them to stop “overreacting” when they criticize their continued marginalization?

  11. “I don’t think it’s productive to demand that someone does everything in order to do anything.”

    I agree with this. It increasingly seems that in order to talk about anything you have to talk about everything. I think this demand has been limiting and inhibiting and short circuiting feminist politics for too long, to disastrous effect.

    It often seems as though intersectionality as a method of broad analysis has been repositioned as a prerequisite and condition of action, which ultimately leaves it (dys)functioning as a rationale for inaction. And so a subtle tool gets used as a bludgeon.

    Maintaining a mindfulness of intersectionality and a commitment to it as an analytical check shouldn’t and can’t entail the simultaneous analysis of everything, the intersecting threads weaving us into political straightjackets.

    When all our actions are required to carry the weight of all our commitments, our actions are less effective and our commitments go unmet.

    Feminism seems increasingly unable to pick its fights, seize its opportunities, or recognize its gains.

  12. I have not read the book (since it hasn’t been released to the general public yet), so I have no opinion yet other than that I intend to read it and here’s why: I am a young middle class white woman who recently left a job in a feminist nonprofit for a Fortune 500 company explicitly because it gives me more room for growth and more proving ground for my ambition. It sounds like this book is written for people like me and while not everyone is like me, I’m still a person and my issues are just as worthy of a book as anyone else’s.

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