Everyone’s leaning in on Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” doesn’t officially publish until next week, but it has already stirred controversy across the media, rallying both critics and defenders to its cause, and resulting in a backlash to the backlash.

The book, which Sandberg describes as “a sort of feminist manifesto,” discusses the need for more women in powerful positions. As Sandberg writes, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” (And, one might add, half our magazines too -- more on that today over here.)

Along with the book, Sandberg is planning to create a program of “Lean In Circles,” in which women can share success stories, look at social science research and get tips on developing their careers. The programs, which promise, predictably, to be quite firmly based in corporate culture, have proved off-putting to some.


Sandberg has drawn criticism for choosing to focus largely on internal, rather than external, impediments to success, leading to the suggestion that she blames women for their own lack of progress when the deck is already stacked against them. Other attacks have been rather more personal. Sandberg, being a wealthy, powerful woman, has been accused of cynicism and of approaching the feminist question with an elitist agenda focused largely on raising her own profile.

Melissa Gira Grant, writing in the Washington Post, called the book a “vanity project” and “public relations campaign.” Maureen Dowd’s snarky New York Times column of Feb. 23, “Pompom Girl for Feminism,” writes of her “grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.”

Both Dowd’s column and an earlier front-page Times feature by Jodi Kantor included a quote from an interview Sandberg gave on PBS, in which the author said, “I always thought I would run a social movement.” The quote, which does indeed make Sandberg appear arrogant, was actually incomplete, as Anna Holmes pointed out on the New Yorker’s blog, in a post titled “Maybe You Should Read the Book: The Sheryl Sandberg Backlash.”

What Sandberg actually said was, “I always thought I would run a social movement, which meant basically work at a nonprofit” (i.e., rather than become a corporate titan). The New York Times has since run a correction. The paper did not, however, correct the title of Dowd’s column, which came from another out-of-context quote.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this backlash has already stirred a response of its own, with Holmes, among others, accusing critics of not even having read the book they commented on. (Sandberg’s publishers, it seems, did not send out enough galleys to accommodate all the requests, and commenters apparently couldn’t wait until they had the actual book in hand.)

Prominent in the defense is the argument that no one -- least of all a woman who is already quite wealthy -- starts a social moment for monetary gain. As Jessica Valenti wrote sarcastically in the Post, “If there’s anything wealthy women are desperate for, it’s the chance to lead a social movement.”

Critics, instead of focusing on the quality of Sandberg’s dedication to feminism, should look at what she says, wrote Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast, who marveled at the “strange sour backlash … aimed less at what the book says than at who Sandberg is.” Sandberg’s motives have also been defended by Naomi Wolf, who praised her for doing “something gutsy” by suggesting that sometimes, there are things women need to change about themselves.

Legitimate criticisms of Sandberg’s book will surely come to the fore as reviews are published in the days to come, but these have yet to surface in any substantive way. Perhaps this is partly because, as Rebecca Greenfeld writes in the Atlantic Wire, “in the stumble that has become women talking about powerful women, you only get to the reasonable part of the conversation after you go through every possible iteration of figuring out how terrible all the powerful women are.”

Or, as Sandberg herself put it in her book, “There is always an opportunity cost, and I don’t know any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions. 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.”


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