It’s been a good year for Sheryl Sandberg. In January, she became one of the youngest billionaires in the world, joining the small group of women on the list and the even smaller group of women who made their own fortunes. The value of Sandberg’s bank account pales in comparison, however, to the worth of the global conversation launched by her best-seller, Lean In, published a year ago in March 2013.
The book is still on multiple best-seller lists, and will be a perennial gift every June during commencement season. There’s even some chance the book will be made into a movie. Sony Pictures acquired the rights and hired Sandberg’s co-author, Nell Scovell, to write a script.
Despite all this—or perhaps because of it—Sandberg has been the object of scorn and anger. It began before the book was even published, with Jodi Kantor writing a snarky portrait in the New York Times in February 2013. Kantor’s article described the book as a welcome evolution beyond the mommy wars, in which stay-at-home mothers criticize working women and vice versa. But the article did not quote a single male, opting instead to highlight what Kantor called a “notable feminist row” between Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Lean In was not to be understood as a discussion with men and women about the barriers to female success, but as a cat fight between women.
Maureen Dowd followed suit a few days later, proclaiming that she was leaning out and that the book was nothing more than a marketing device for the brand of Sheryl Sandberg.
A year later, a bizarre attack piece arrived by Rosa Brooks. “Recline!, or Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg” was published in Foreign Policy and republished in the Washington Post. Brooks catalogues the many reasons she hates Sandberg, including the fact that Sandberg has nice hair and taught aerobics in college. Brooks blames Sandberg for urging women to work hard and suggests that the world Sandberg aims to bring about is all work, no family, and no play. But Sandberg says just the opposite, advocating for time spent with children, partners, and on oneself. What’s most shocking: Brooks is no linkbaiting hack. She’s a law professor at Georgetown.
And so it goes. Lean In and Sandberg have become a touchstone for intra-feminist squabbles. One needs to take a side. Are you for her or against her? Do you like her or not?
It’s as if Kantor, Dowd, and Brooks hold Sandberg more responsible for the inequalities and injustices faced by women in the workplace than they do male sexism. The irony is that all three female writers are high achieving women, exactly the sort of female role models I think Sandberg champions.
For me, Lean In is not a feminist manifesto. It makes no pretense to novelty in crafting a feminist position. Sandberg is animated by what one could call a familiar and elementary feminist premise: the idea that women are the moral and political equals of men. Starting from this unobjectionable position, Sandberg asks why women are not the equals of men in leadership positions or in compensation in the workplace. And while acknowledging the problems of failed public policy and institutional sexism, Sandberg trains her attention on what women themselves can do to improve gender equality: negotiate harder for salary and job position, choose a partner who is willing to share in domestic labor, reject the myth of doing it all. As Anne Applebaum wrote in one of the more interesting reviews of Lean In, Sandberg’s achievement is not an advance in feminist thought. Her achievement is in writing “the first truly successful, best-selling “how to succeed in business” motivational book to be explicitly designed and marketed for women.” What’s to dislike about this, much less inspire hate?
None of this is to suggest that Sandberg should be exempt from criticism. But let criticism not be ad hominem, and not levied only by women, as if men had nothing at stake, or no responsibility, in promoting gender equality.
Goals vs Tactics
Sheryl Sandberg’s goals are, it seems to me, unassailable: she’s in favor of gender equality in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and more female politicians. What’s worthy of debate are her tactics, and Sandberg welcomes such debate. Does Sandberg provide smart recommendations? Does Lean In support savvy public relations efforts?
When Lean In appeared last year, it was accompanied by the Lean In organization, dedicated to promoting female aspiration and workplace equality. Sandberg recruited men and women to shares stories on video and supported the creation of so-called Lean In Circles. Kantor’s New York Times article seemed skeptical that many such circles would come to exist, but in twelve months more than 13,000 circles have been created in dozens of countries.
A few months ago, Lean In partnered with Getty Images to make available a collection of images depicting women and girls as leaders. “Woman” is the most commonly searched term on the Getty site, and the new collection is welcome step beyond stockphoto galleries of women seemingly thrilled to be eating salad.
Less impressive, to my mind, is the most recent effort by Lean In. On the one year anniversary of the book’s publication, Sandberg launched an effort to ban the word “bossy” from use in describing girls and women. Replete with celebrity endorsements, a social media campaign, and a partnership with the Girl Scouts, the ban bossy effort certainly made a big splash.
A better move would have been an effort to co-opt “bossy” in order to de-stigmatize the word. Several others have noted as much, including Margaret Talbot, who wrote, “Banning is really only for words that solely degrade or demean, and even then you want to proceed with caution because you’re depleting the expressive richness of the language.”
Follow instead the example of groups who re-appropriated derogatory words. Gays and lesbians, for example, co-opted a far more injurious term, “queer”, as in “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Or less dramatically, Stanford students gleefully adopted an identity as “nerds”, branding themselves “Nerd Nation.” Stanford athletes are the prime movers behind the effort, even making several excellent videos about it.
My reservations about Ban Bossy notwithstanding, I count myself as a strong supporter of Lean In. I have seen the book inspire and encourage many students, both female and male. I admire Sandberg’s courage in undertaking an effort she certainly didn’t need to do and that she must have known would be controversial. The book’s sales figures are testimony to its reach. And the Lean In organization continues to grab headlines and define an agenda. May the second year be as successful as the first. And may the debate about the book focus on tactics rather than goals, strategy rather than personality.