For some, Sheryl Sandberg has “hijacked feminism” and added “controversial author” to her list of esteemed accomplishments — right below COO of Facebook. All because she wrote Lean In, a book about her journey to the top as not just a woman but a business woman, a Harvard graduate, a mother, and a wife. As a woman in positions traditionally held by men, Sandberg has been criticized, insulted, judged, and degraded throughout her career. So the heat she has received in the media ever since her book was released (and prior as well) likely doesn’t sting all that much. Regardless, she’s received some pretty serious pushback in the media, particularly among those who proudly claim to be feminists and demand that Sandberg step down from espousing feminism and gender equality.
I originally heard about Sandberg and her book all in one article that was criticizing her for well, writing the book in the first place. It questioned her motives and referred to has as an elitist on a marketing campaign not striving to change the world. I remember thinking, “hm, I need to read this book because I love to read things that challenge me and make me furious all at the same time.” That’s what this article made me think the book would evoke. So I broke down and bought it a few days ago and I have been taking the bus instead of the train to lengthen my commute, guarantee me a seat, and allow me to dive into the thoughts, values, beliefs, and experiences of a very successful woman. Maureen Dowd is scoffing so loud right now.
No but seriously, the critics of Sandberg need to take a step back and realize that your arguments are not founded in much of anything. Yes, Sheryl Sandberg is a white, affluent, successful, and nonetheless powerful woman. Yes, she got to go to college and then graduate school at Harvard Business School. Yes, she has worked for the Treasury Department, Google, and Facebook. Yep, you’re right, she is an elite and she doesn’t speak to women, especially women of color, who are living in poverty. Because you’re right, her principles, lessons, and experiences doesn’t reflect the power women of color in this country. These are all things she acknowledges and admits in the first few pages of her book. She did not write for an audience of underprivledged women and girls. She wrote for women who would read her book and for men and institutions contributing to the gender gap. It is these people who can, should and will implement change and open doors for poor women living in poverty
Not everyone who writes about gender, equality, and feminism has to be writing about or on behalf of poor women of color. And quite frankly, it’s disrespectful to think so. Plus, if Sandberg had written her book out of outrage for the fact that her experiences and success are so far out of reach of poor women of color, people would be criticizing her just as much saying “She’s just some rich white woman trying to speak to the realities of people from which she is so far removed.”
Even so, Sandberg led her introduction with the devastating statistics regarding women in this country as well as around the globe and how unequal we truly are. She did not focus each chapter on this devastation nor did she drench her pages in history and the women’s movement towards liberation. That wasn’t the purpose of her book and we should not discount what she does have to say based on what some people think should have been said. She states, right off the bat, “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.” She recognizes also that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families,” and that “parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.” You see, she countered all of the anticipated push back in the first few pages of her book. She was not trying to come off as some hero to the less fortunate women in the world.
Although her advice and lessons learned were born out of prestige, excellence, affluence, and privilege, they can be equally applied to the mother that is working double shifts or two to three jobs to take care of their families.Building up confidence, speaking even when we are not asked to, and leaning in instead of sitting back are ways all women can better their lives. Yes, it’s easier said than done, especially for those living in poverty. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say it, discuss it, and empower women who most would think don’t stand a chance to reclaim their voice and lean in rather than be silenced.
Certainly, Sandberg is right when she writes, “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” We all applaud and stand proud when we see the number of women graduating from college, entering the workforce, and being elected to public office. Yet when a COO of the most successful and well-known social media site tries to highlight the underpinnings of our excitement and pride, she’s shunned.
Sandberg isn’t blaming the victim nor is she letting the deep rooted causes and institutional patriarchy off the hook by placing tools into the hands of women. She didn’t write this book for women, she wrote it for both men and women. Many of Sandberg’s mentors were men due to the fact that they accepted her and valued her for her skills, mind, and leadership not because of her pencil skirt, high heels, and cleavage. They didn’t reduce her down to her gender, they listened to her. Indeed, the best leaders are the best listeners.
The critics — which should be noted are mostly women — are pushing back based on the same notions that Sandberg is trying to also push back on. She’s being hushed because she’s a (successful) woman and a mother. She is exactly what the feminist movement has strove for. Sandberg stopped waiting to be told what to do and what to say a long time ago.
Her lessons, advice, and feedback motivate me every day as I try to “make it” in this world. My peers, those criticizing her in the media, my colleagues — we are all women who are relatively successful and well-off in the grand scheme of things. As a social worker, I will espouse the principles and the ideals she writes about as I try to empower women who otherwise would not be given a chance. I will also take notes on how to be a strong, confident, and respected leader who is equally part of a team because it is through leadership and collaboration that we will make the world a better place.