It’s so tempting to deride Sheryl Sandberg for her new, self-appointed role as the leader of a social movement to bring more gender equality to the workplace.
She must be one of the richest, most successful working mothers on the planet, and in her new book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” her attempts to identify with ordinary working moms seem comical at times.
To illustrate that she, too, has found herself in unexpected situations as a parent, she describes a time when she discovered her children had head lice. What parent can’t relate? Except that Sandberg was on her way to a Silicon Valley business conference. On a corporate jet. Owned by the CEO of eBay.
Most of us are not able to personally thank Gloria Steinem, Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey for encouraging us to write a book. And most of us don’t have a massive marketing apparatus ready to sell our work (the publication date is March 11) all the while urging readers to create Lean In Circles and join the Lean In Community that, not coincidentally, is hosted by Facebook, where Sandberg is the chief operating officer.
Yes, it’s tempting to deride Sheryl Sandberg, and already many have, because 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 — is uncomfortable and controversial. But many of those sniping about her haven’t actually read the book. I have. And I found it surprisingly nuanced, persuasive and brave.
She uses her gilded bully pulpit to say the things that others are not able or willing to say.
It’s a message that should especially resonate in the organized Jewish community, where women remain poorly represented in leadership, are routinely paid less than their male counterparts, and are generally discounted — and discount themselves — as thought leaders on the national stage.
Sandberg grew up in the Jewish community, in Florida, the daughter of a physician father and a stay-at-home mother who channeled her energy and intellect into the movement to free Soviet Jews and other human rights concerns.
Born in 1969 (can she really be that young?), Sandberg worked for Larry Summers at the World Bank in her first job after graduating from Harvard, worked for the famed McKinsey consulting firm in her first job after Harvard Business School, logged in four years as Summer’s chief of staff when he ran the Treasury Department, and then took a leap of faith and moved to Silicon Valley, where soon enough she went to work for a little-known tech company. Named Google.
And then she went to another tech company that was past childhood and just entering adolescence, and needed an “old hand” at the helm. Facebook.
So, it’s true that Sandberg has had a charmed career, and she admits as much in her breezy book (written with Nell Scovell.) But as she’d be quick to remind us, women tend to feel “lucky” if they’ve achieved professional success. Men tend to simply think they deserve it.
She recounts a question-and-answer session with students at her business school alma mater in 2011: “The men were focusing on how to manage a business and the women were focusing on how to manage a career. The men wanted answers and the women wanted permission and help.”
This is just one of the many ways that Sandberg persuasively documents how we women hold ourselves back. That is not the only reason for the abysmal statistics that are laced through this book, detailing the persistent gender gap in leadership in the public and private sector, proof perfect that the women’s movement has stalled.
She does reference the institutional barriers to full equality — lack of affordable childcare, inflexible workplaces, scarce paid family leave, just to name a few — though does not give them anywhere the attention they deserve.
But Sandberg’s real contribution, and the source of much controversy, is her argument that women share some of the responsibility for this situation. For our situation.
Though it pains me to say this, she is right. We don’t immediately take a seat at the table. We don’t naturally speak out. We downscale our ambitions to accommodate future family responsibilities before we even need to, and don’t play the long game with our careers.
Professional women, Sandberg writes, “need to measure the cost of child care against their future salary rather than their current salary.” In other words, we shouldn’t be afraid to invest in ourselves.
As if anticipating the media-driven catfight that broke out as soon as advanced word of her book was published, Sandberg has strong criticism for the way women treat each other for the choices we make.
“I don’t know any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions,” she writes. “As a result, we inadvertently hold that discomfort against those who remind us of the path not taken. Guilt and insecurity make us second-guess ourselves and, in turn, resent one another.”
And while we are busy resenting each other for being imperfect at home and imperfect at work because no one can be remotely perfect everywhere, we are holding ourselves back. To Sandberg’s reams of statistics cataloguing the dearth of women in leadership roles in the corporate sector, I will add my own experiences in Jewish media. Women submit opinion pieces at a far lower rate than men. Women are poorly represented in public programs and discussions.
How much of that is due to unspoken sexism and how much because we don’t raise our hands and keep them up until we are noticed? How much of it is because we are not confident in what we have to say?
Sandberg is trying, in her words, “to disrupt the status quo.” In my mind that is both an external and internal process. We must find partners willing to “lean in” and share family responsibilities. We must continue to advocate for the long-overdue institutional changes and government policies that will support working families, especially those who struggle economically.
But women have work to do on the inside, too. I know that I do. In the course of the few days I was reading this book, I found myself saying that I was “lucky” to win several national journalism awards. I wondered whether someone close to me should try for a new job when she was pregnant. I snidely put down Sheryl Sandberg because she is powerful, rich and well connected.
She is all those things. Maybe it takes someone like that to tell us what we don’t want to hear. Personally, I can do without the Lean In Circles and the Facebook promotion, but all of us — women and men alike — who care about creating a more equitable America ought to take her message to heart.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.