Sheryl Sandberg wants all women to ‘Lean In’; she knows it’s an unfair burden

March 15, 2013

Sheryl Sandberg gave a lecture, which gathered a following, which became a book, which landed like a bomb, which has been widely misunderstood (or has it?) for being terribly elitist (or is it?) for its depiction of women and ambition in the workforce.

This week, she came to Washington to explain. Again.

“I don’t speak for every person in the world. I never claimed to — no one can.”

“The whole point of this book was to let ourselves off the hook.”

“Believe in yourself. Sit at the table. Lean in!”


Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” poses for a portrait at the Willard Hotel in Washington. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

Lean in. Or, “Lean In,” the directional title of the book, which has opened itself to women announcing they can also #LeanOver, #LeanSideways, #LienIn. The work has been heralded as either the most important feminist manifesto since Betty Friedan’s or as a devastating Feminine Mistake, written by the Facebook chief operating officer whose personal fortune must leave her tone-deaf to the plight of the typical worker — a woman who, when she refers to “Mark,” means “Zuckerberg.” It was released five days ago.

Put your elbows on the table. Kick your shoes off — Sandberg does, revealing painted toenails in an afternoon interview. Let’s lean way in and talk about this book until we’re sick to our stomachs (#SpleenIn). Already sick? Proceed to the online comments, where some man-toads are probably debating whether Sandberg is hot.

First, her Washington tour: a Willard Hotel breakfast, a private conversation in Facebook’s local offices and an NPR-sponsored discussion at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, overflowing with women.

“As a 28-year-old woman in the workforce, I am always referred to as a girl,” says one attendee, who wants to take back respect.

“It’s wonderful to have a Web site,” says one older woman. But what the country really needs, she says, is legislation.

A third wants to know what to do when her ideas are ignored, when it seems no one is interested in her voice.

“The short answer,” Sandberg says, “you speak up by speaking up. You sit at the table by sitting at the table.”

It’s easy, no? No?

****

In person, it is almost impossible not to believe in Sheryl Sandberg. She is extraordinarily likable, as, she notes in “Lean In,” women in power must be. She smiles a lot. She softens phrases by crediting others or using “I think” rather than speaking in declarative sentences. She pauses to guzzle Diet Coke and apply ChapStick while still coming across as the sort of organized person whose purse interior is never sticky.

“I do not like some of the advice that I’m giving in the book. No question.” she says. “Because I don’t think we should have to give that advice. I don’t think we should have to tell women: Say ‘We’ and not ‘I.’ ”

Sandberg is addressing one criticism of “Lean In,” which is that she encourages women to tackle an unfair situation — women hold 14 percent of executive positions in the United States — by playing an unlikable game: Ask for respect, but in a womanly manner. Be eternally pleasant. Suggest that you’re requesting a raise because a superior advised it. Accept compliments: Women demur when they should just say “Thank you.”

People say it’s paradoxical. Yes, it is, and it’s the paradox I’m trying to get out of.”

This is . . . a stopgap measure?

“This is a stopgap measure,” she says. “I want more women to negotiate better, even in the current construct, even with smiles I don’t want them to have to do.”

When I saw Sandberg give her original TED lecture two years ago — the one that incubated “Lean In’s” main ideas — she came across as earnest but nervous, testing the waters of her big message. Now she is exuberant, fully dedicated to reaching every woman in the United States, not resting until they have fully realized even the ambitions they don’t know they have. No woman will go untouched. No one.

That is the thinking behind LeanIn.org, the nonprofit counterpart to “Lean In” and to Lean In Circles, the living-room offshoot. The book is being translated into 20 languages.

But what about: Isn’t Sandberg writing from a Silicon Valley palace with millions of advantages her typical reader won’t have? Yes, she says, and that’s why the book is filled with studies about average women.

But what about: Don’t we need government policies as much as we need personal ambition shifts? Yes, she says, but even in Scandinavia, which has those policies, women lag in corporate culture.

But what about: And here I confess that reading “Lean In” made me feel bad about myself. It made me look at every career issue I’d encountered and blame myself for not leaning in until I fell over.

She looks horrified.

“Maybe there was a better way to write it, to avoid that reaction.”

****

There will always be a better way to write it. There will always be a group of women (SAHMs, DINKs) who are not included in whatever feminist discussion the country is currently having. In response to the “Lean In” debate, the Guardian’s financial journalist Heidi Moore tweeted: “No man reads [male-written business manifesto] ‘Good to Great’ worrying that it doesn’t sympathize with guys working at McDonald’s.”

Perhaps that’s because women have been socialized to be collaborative, to leave no woman behind. Perhaps that’s because we don’t talk about it enough: When a woman offers to take a swing at this big, hairy issue, we're afraid that the next woman at-bat is so far down the lineup that it will be innings before we get another turn.

Sandberg has given interviews on “60 Minutes” (with Norah O’Donnell), on “Good Morning America” (with Robin Roberts), on “The Diane Rehm Show.” With rare exceptions, the journalists covering the book have been women, a fact that should probably be read as a feminist victory, but by which I’m oddly irritated. As if this vast, important discussion about work and power is something men are either too wimpy, too busy or too uninterested to take on.

Sandberg, as it happens, has ideas for men, too. “Help women reach for opportunities,” she says. Also, men are frequently afraid to mentor young women lest they be viewed as predators, so, “Really be honest about the sponsorship and mentorship problem.” Also: “We’ve got to talk to women about pregnancy,” she says, and that goes for male and female bosses. “Every boss in America needs to look at their staff [and say]: ‘My door is open, when and if you want to have a child. I want you to be able to talk to me.’ ”

The country is going to get there.

She is going to move the discussion forward, one woman at a time, if that’s what it takes.

“You’re a good interviewer,” she encourages me, after I’ve confessed that “Lean In” made me panic about verbal tics.

I attempt to change the subject for a minute.

“No,” she insists on confidence-building. “I care about this for women.”

[Silence.]

“You’re good, and I want you to know that!”

“Thank you.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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