By Bhaswati Chattopadhyay
The entire crowd at Coolidge Corner Theater sat at the edge of their seats and leaned in to hear the arguments Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg pitched for greater women’s representation in the workplace. In the sold-out WBUR event last Thursday, Sandberg discussed with interviewer Robin Young her national bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
The enthusiastic crowd consisted largely of professional women already carrying copies of Lean In for the subsequent book-signing. Many already appeared to be sold on Sandberg’s message — unsurprising, as Sandberg has established herself as a strong voice in the business community. Consistently featured on international lists of “Most Influential Women,” Sandberg gained a massive fan following after a 2010 TED Talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.”
Her book, her nonprofit organization, and the discussion all serve as a call to action for women to “lean-in” in order to truly lead in a male-dominated world where women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and only hold about 14 percent of executive officer positions in the United States.
While acknowledging that many challenges women face are institutional and there must be an effort from men in power to work against prejudice, Sandberg asserted that the “best way to reform an institution is to run it.” The problem lies in the lack of encouragement women receive to be leaders.
Sandberg explained that these problems stem from gender stereotyping that start at early childhood. Citing shirts told by major retailers for babies featuring the words “Smart like Daddy” and “Pretty like Mommy,” she said the pigeonholing doesn’t stop there.
“We’re held back by sexism, discrimination, and terrible public policy, but we’re also held back by the stereotypes,” she said. “Go to any playground and you’ll hear little girls called ‘bossy.’ You won’t hear little boys called bossy, because we expect boys to be assertive. Lean In is trying to change that – instead of calling our girls bossy we should say ‘my daughter has executive leadership skills.’”
However, even women who break past these initial barriers and discouragement aren’t given the same credit as men are. Sandberg cites research that reveal how women are more likely to attribute their own success to “working hard, help from others, and luck,” while men credit their own “core skills.”
Additionally, the negative perception of strong women continues onto the professional world, where intelligent, assertive men are praised as “leaders,” while women with the same traits are deemed “bossy.”
According to Sandberg, the best way individual women can counteract the discrimination is to not tolerate subtle condescension or inequalities. She urged women to be more confident in their skills, to negotiate for higher wages and positions, and to demand equal treatment. Women are capable of making these changes by themselves. Quoting Alice Walker, Sandberg said that “[t]he most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
While Sandberg’s message is very simple to follow, it has garnered considerable criticism, especially from women who otherwise support women occupying more leadership positions.
Young described one of these view points: “There are people who think that in saying that women need to lean in more and claim their place at the table that you are blaming them.”
Sandberg argued that her message had no such intention and that encouraging women to take control of their destinies ultimately empowers them to no longer depend on a huge shift in social attitudes to occur before they can make a difference.
Following the interview an audience member raised another point of controversy when she noted that many of her otherwise like-minded colleagues cannot relate to the “Lean in” message because of additional struggles women of different socioeconomic, resources, opportunities, and ethnic origins face.
The question prompted me to consider the situation from the following perspective: “How much can working class women of color truly benefit from advice given by a billionaire COO with two Harvard degrees?”
Sandberg handled these tough questions with considerable grace. Thankfully, she did not attempt to argue against the fact that she was incredibly privileged.
“I don’t think that I can address every issue and it would be dishonest for me to try. I’m lucky and I know that. But what can I do with that luck? Do I not have some responsibility to make a difference with the resources and position I have?”
She added that the many arguments she raised in her book could easily apply to any group that has faced historic oppression and has not been empowered yet.
Nevertheless, this criticism is valid. It is indeed an oversimplification that “leaning in” will work for all women equally. Sandberg’s message is, in many ways, reminiscent of “second-wave” feminist rhetoric that did not fully take the intersectionality of race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation into consideration.
It’s refreshing to see someone with of that position and influence proudly identify as a feminist. On the long run, however, Sandberg’s message, like the greater feminist movement, must “lean in” towards greater inclusivity to truly lead in equality.