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Opinion Sheryl Sandberg and the emptiness of leaning in

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Sept. 5.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Sept. 5. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sheryl Sandberg leaned way, way in — to shut the rest of the country out.

A recent report in the New York Times details how Facebook hushed up Russian interference on its platform, and how chief operating officer Sandberg led the charge to hush up the hush-up. The story is damning for the company, and it’s especially damning for Sandberg. After all, she made her name on the message that women could transform the world if only they would try. That world wouldn’t only be more equal. It would also be better.

So much for that.

Sandberg’s failure at Facebook exposes an emptiness at the heart of the argument that made her famous. Women, Sandberg argues in her 2013 mega-selling book, “Lean In,” should take a seat at the table. That’s all well and good. But what should they do once they’re sitting there? Sandberg herself, consummate table-sitter, has offered an answer over her company’s year of horrors: Keep everything exactly the same.

The 116th Congress will have a younger, more diverse, more motivated group of congresswomen than ever before, says columnist Karen Tumulty. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Let your Republican strategist tell you that being honest will make GOP members of Congress mad — and stay silent. Yell at your security officer for doing his job because it might put yours at risk. Allow your subordinates to play on the same political polarization your platform is under fire for facilitating by using public-relations firms to fan partisan flames. These tactics, all reported by the Times, whose portrayal Facebook has rebutted and the company’s board of directors has called “grossly unfair,” are how people in power have always held on to it. Sandberg intended to hold on to it, too.

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In fact, this approach is perfectly consistent with the message of Sandberg’s opus. “Lean In” is not fundamentally a feminist manifesto. It is a road map for operating within the existing system, perhaps changing it at the margins to make it easier for other women to, well, operate within the system. Sandberg does not spend much time asking whether the system is so screwed up that pushing against it might be the better route toward meaningful change.

Take the chapter in which Sandberg skewers gendered stereotypes in the workplace. She cites a study in which students, presented with a profile of an employee who reaches the upper echelons of a company by leveraging personal connections, rate that employee more likeable when he is named “Howard” than when she is named “Heidi.” Heidi, Sandberg says, embodies to survey subjects many of the shortcomings they see in women but not in their male counterparts: “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted.”

She’s right, of course, that it’s wrong to tolerate these traits in men and call them out in women — and that it’s wronger still to accuse a woman of displaying those qualities when she’s acting perfectly appropriately. But the answer isn’t to lower the standard for women to match the too-low expectations set for men. Better to raise the bar for everyone so that aggressiveness and selfishness and untrustworthiness no longer shortened the track to success.

Can’t be trusted? Well, obscuring a foreign adversary’s attempts to manipulate Americans’ behavior in the interest of self-preservation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. A bit political? Hiring PR hitmen capable of casting critics of Facebook as agents of conservative bogeyman George Soros (a source told the Times that top executives including Sandberg “were not aware of the specific work being done by Definers”) was as savvy as it was destructive.

Sandberg didn’t do these things because she was a woman. She did them because she was not so different from all those men.

Sandberg posits in her book that installing women in positions of power is a worthy end in itself. And it is. But it means a lot less if, once women are in power, they do nothing to alter the society-wide structures that separate the haves from the have-nots along lots of lines besides gender.

One section of “Lean In” does seem to argue for an alternative to the way things are, beyond “add more ladies.” Sandberg stresses for a few pages the need for authentic communication, and she suggests that women in particular may be able to clear an atmosphere of pent-up male emotion. Real leadership, she argues, “stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed.”

“We can all hasten this change by committing ourselves both to seek — and speak — our truth,” Sandberg writes. Fair enough. You first.

Read more:

Melissa Gira Grant: Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ campaign holds little for most women

Ruth Marcus: Sheryl Sandberg’s valuable lesson

Jessica Valenti: Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the perfect feminist. So what?

Paul Waldman: Russia may have just spread disinformation on Facebook. Where’s Trump?

Jennifer Rubin: Why Facebook’s revelation is such a big deal