The Forward 50 is our annual look at the American Jews who made a difference in the past year. Each day, we will spotlight one of our Top 5 picks, leading up to Sunday night when the entire package — along with some very special surprises — will go live.
Sheryl Sandberg’s singular achievement in 2013 was to embed that phrase into the contemporary lexicon, and prompt a new conversation about family life, women in the workplace, and the demands and price of professional success.
The chief operating officer of Facebook, and the only woman to serve on its board of directors, Sandberg, 44, used her lofty (and wealthy) perch atop the corporate world to remind women that the barriers to success are not only systemic and societal — they also come from within.
Her central message — that the movement for equality in the workplace is stalled partly because women are not ambitious and determined enough to “lean in” to their careers — was uncomfortable and controversial, especially given the marketing hype that greeted the March publication of her book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead.” Some dismissed Sandberg as too privileged to be prophetic.
But her message caught on. The book has spent 33 weeks so far on The New York Times Best Seller list. And a spokeswoman from leanin.org said that there are now 10,000 “circles” — Sandberg’s word for self-help groups — across America, and in at least 50 countries, devoted to enhancing women’s advancement.
Sandberg grew up in Florida’s Jewish community, born to a physician father and a stay-at-home mother who channeled her energy and intellect into the movement to free Soviet Jews and into other human rights concerns. (Sandberg was recently quoted as saying that her mother, at age 70, had decided to become a bat mitzvah, an opportunity not available to her when she was younger.)
After graduating from Harvard, Sandberg worked for Larry Summers at the World Bank, and then, after graduating from Harvard Business School, she worked for the famed McKinsey & Company consulting firm. She logged four years as Summers’s chief of staff when he ran the Treasury Department, and then took a leap of faith and moved to Silicon Valley, where in 2001 she went to work for a little-known tech company named Google.
Then onto Facebook, which had about 500 employees when she started and now has nearly 5,000. Her own worth is estimated to be more than $400 million.
So there is a certain amount of luck attached to Sandberg’s story, but, as she writes in her book, women tend to feel “lucky” at professional success; men act as if they deserve it.
Sandberg was faulted for not paying enough attention in her book to the institutional barriers to full equality — lack of affordable child care, inflexible workplaces, scarce paid family leave, just to name a few — and for pushing what some characterize as an elite message geared more for the executive suite than for the ordinary workplace.
In an interview on “60 Minutes,” Norah O’Donnell asked Sandberg about the charge that, given her wealth and status, it’s easy for her to urge women to lean in.
“It is easier for me to say this,” Sandberg replied. “And that’s why I’m saying it.”