Sheryl Sandberg may be finding that the problem with turning herself into an advocate for unappreciated women in the workplace is that there are a lot of unappreciated women out there who need her help.
But it certainly sounds like the eminent Facebook executive missed a chance Wednesday to broaden the lessons of her "Lean In" bestseller to cover some of the least appreciated women in the economy.
The occasion was Sandberg's appearance at Harvard University to deliver its "Class Day" speech Wednesday afternoon. A group of mostly female hotel workers trying to organize a union election at a DoubleTree Hotel owned by the university sought a meeting with Sandberg during her visit; they got the cold shoulder. The hotel is near the Harvard Business School campus, where Sandberg got her MBA in 1995, on the Boston side of the Charles River.
The workers, who have been working with a Unite Here local to arrange a unionization vote, had launched an online petition asking Sandberg to host a "Lean In Circle" for them ("Circles are small peer groups that meet regularly to learn and share together," according to Sandberg's publicity machine).
To be sure, Sandberg's message of female empowerment in the race to the corporate suite has been criticized as rather elitist and even something of a fraud; by some measures, her bestselling book proves that female executives have finally reached equality with men as purveyors of fatuous bromides and inspirational personal anecdotes for the business-book shelf.
"Sandberg’s combination of sort-of-feminist analysis and not-really memoir doesn’t square up," Amanda Hess wrote last year in Slate. As for the personal stories offered by readers on the website of LeanIn.org, part of Sandberg's branding effort, they don't help you "learn much about real barriers women face in the workplace or how they navigated them," Hess observed. "These stories aren’t telling us anything beyond the clichés of the inspirational poster (which Sandberg admits a fondness for)."
Lemus said the workers involved in the organizing drive figured that Sandberg was a very important figure at the school, and her voice might put some pressure on the university as the hotel's owner. It isn't known whether Sandberg alluded to the workers in her talk; according to the Globe, "she spoke about gender bias in management, and said that 'careers are not ladders,' and that graduates must now 'look backwards, sideways, and around corners' for opportunities."