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Did Sheryl 'Lean In' Sandberg turn her back on Boston hotel workers?

Did Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg turn her back on Harvard hotel workers?
A group of unionizing hotel workers sought Sheryl Sandberg's help; didn't get it

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).

As the Boston Globe and Harvard Crimson reported earlier this week, Sandberg's representatives told them she wouldn't have the time. We sought comment from Sandberg via Facebook and LeanIn.org, but didn't get a response.

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)."

Their relevance for women struggling in punishing low-wage jobs remote from the executive track is even more dubious. Delmy Lemus, a 33-year-old single mother earning $15.82 an hour as a DoubleTree housekeeper, told us the hotel has been squeezing more work out of the staff while fending off unionization.

Unite Here filed an National Labor Relations Board complaint over hotel policies that served to discourage organizing; the complaint was settled with an agreement that some of the policies would be lifted. In a statement to the Globe, Hilton Worldwide, which manages the hotel, said that most of the 1,000 housekeeping, front desk, and food service workers who are the target of the organizing drive don't want unionization and disapprove of the union's strategy, which includes urging would-be guests to boycott the place. 

Hotel employment may be the ultimate pink-collar job. The workforce is mostly women, and injury rates are high. These aren't the professionals whose stories of personal striving fill the pages of LeanIn.org -- lawyers, engineers, HR executives, Web producers and entrepreneurs. It's not that their stories aren't genuine or inspirational -- many are exactly that -- but that their stories don't come close to covering the full range of female employment.

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."

"We were looking for help," Lemus says. Nor is she unsympathetic to Sandberg's plea that her schedule doesn't allow her to host a Lean In Circle for anyone who asks. "I understand she's a very busy lady," she said, "and we just work in a hotel."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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