NEW YORK — For a book that has yet to be released, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” — part feminist manifesto, part how-to career guide — has got a lot of people talking.
In the weeks leading up to the book’s release Monday, pundits and press hounds have been debating its merits.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called Sandberg a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots,” and countless bloggers have suggested that Facebook’s chief operating officer is the wrong person to lead a women’s movement.
“Most of the criticism has to do with the position she is coming from,” said Susan Yohn, professor and chairwoman of Hofstra University’s history department.
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Sandberg, 43, hopes that her message of empowerment won’t be obscured by the lofty pedestal from which she speaks. But is the multimillionaire with two Harvard degrees too rich to offer advice? Too successful? Does her blueprint for success ignore the plight of poor and working-class women? Does the book’s very premise blame women for not rising to top corporate positions at the same rate as men?
And just how big is her house?
The questions keep coming largely because few people yet have actually read the book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” published by Alfred A. Knopf. But in it, Sandberg seems to have foreseen much of the criticism. The book acknowledges that critics might discount her feminist call to action with an easy-for-her-to-say shrug.
“My hope is that my message will be judged on its merits,” she writes in the preamble.
Sandberg recognizes that parts of the book are targeted toward women who are in a position to make decisions about their careers. Still, she writes, “we can’t avoid this conversation. This issue transcends all of us. The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream and encourage more men to support women in the workforce and in the home.”
It’s true that Sandberg is wealthy. She also has a supportive husband. Mark Zuckerberg is her boss. And, yes, her home in Menlo Park, Calif., is 9,000 square feet.
But as a woman in Silicon Valley, Sandberg hasn’t exactly had it easy, and her tale shows she’s no armchair activist. Not many women would march into their boss’ office and demand special parking for expectant mothers. But Sandberg did just that when she worked at Google. Company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin complied.
After Sandberg moved to Facebook in 2008, she became even more outspoken on the issues facing women in corporate America. At a time when other executives, male or female, have largely stayed quiet, Sandberg has delivered speeches on topics such as “Why we have too few women leaders.”
And she’s no workaholic. In an age of endless work hours, Sandberg is famous for leaving the office at 5:30 to spend time with her family. She does admit, however, to picking up work once her kids have gone to bed.
Of the many inspirational slogans that hang on Facebook’s walls, her favorite asks “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” “Lean In” is about pushing past fear.
“Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face,” she writes. “Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.”
Peppered with studies
Sandberg peppers the book with studies, reports and personal anecdotes to back up her premise — that for reasons both in and out of their control, there are fewer woman leaders than men in the business world and beyond. For example, the Fortune 500 has only 21 female CEOs. According to Catalyst.org, women hold only 14 percent of the executive-officer positions and only 16 percent of board seats.
For minority women, the numbers are even bleaker. Women of color, she writes, hold just 4 percent of top corporate jobs and 3 percent of board seats.
“The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve,” she writes.
At less than 200 pages, plus a good chunk of footnotes, “Lean In” does not purport to be the end-all solution to inequality. It deals with issues Sandberg sees as in women’s control.
“Don’t leave before you leave” is one of her catchphrases, aimed at successful women who gradually drop out of the workforce in anticipation of children they may someday bear. “Make your partner a real partner” is another. She says everyone should encourage men to “lean in” at home by being equal partners in parenting and housework.
“Lean In” is, by and large, for women who are looking to climb the corporate ladder, and ideally their male supporters. She hopes it’s the start of a conversation. To that end, Sandberg plans to donate all proceeds to her newly minted nonprofit, LeanIn.org.
Sandberg’s book shares personal details that reveal a fair share of stumbles and lesser-known tidbits. Did you know she was an aerobics instructor in the 1980s — big hair, silver leotard and all? The book paints a picture of a successful woman who admits to lacking confidence at various points in her career.
And she writes about “feeling like a fraud” — that insidious notion, felt largely by women but men as well, that success is due not to one’s own merit but to some sort of gross oversight or accident.
Sandberg’s book comes half a century after Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which identified “the problem that has no name” among largely white, suburban housewives who felt unfulfilled in their roles at home. Friedan, too, was criticized for focusing on a privileged swath of womankind.
In a recent piece on Sandberg’s movement, Michael Kazin wrote in the New Republic that, like Friedan, Sandberg, “also seems primarily concerned with the economics of gender. But there’s a key difference: Friedan didn’t share a view from the corporate boardroom.”
Kazin’s barbs echo most of the book’s pre-release criticism. But some writers have gone further. In a Washington Post op-ed, Melissa Gira Grant dismissed Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement as “simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line.” Dowd wrote that she believes “Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”
In the end, “Lean In” is a call to action to make it easier for women to become leaders. It’s a call for women to take space at the table, speak up and step up. It’s a personal account of a woman who, through a mix of talent, luck and ambition, but also with plenty of internal and external obstacles along the way, managed to do that.