Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has created a veritable firestorm. Maureen Dowd called her the "pom pom girl for feminism"; other women accuse Sandberg of being out of touch—how dare a Harvard double-degreed, successful business executive (with a mansion in Silicon Valley and a mini-army to conquer the daily childcare and household tasks) tell us about how to live our lives? Why is she telling women that they are their own worst enemies? Isn’t she blaming the victim?
Personally, I like Sheryl Sandberg and what she has to say. I recently watched her talk at Harvard Business School’s 50th anniversary of officially admitting women into their MBA progam (an aside: has it really been only 50 years since HBS started admitting women to their B-school? That in itself says a lot about the current state of gender equality). What she had to say was: yes, there are institutional challenges; yes, there is plenty of ingrained sexism there, starting from when girls are barely old enough to walk or speak; and yes, we need to work and solve all these problems. But her point about “leaning in” wasn’t that we all should work more or abandon our families. Her point was quite simply: set your own personal goals, and don’t be afraid to pursue them. Ambitiously. Don’t let people’s ideas about how women should behave or your own fears (I’m not qualified, I won't be a good mother, it’s unseemly for women to appear "too ambitious") keep you back.
I found it downright inspiring. She was intelligent, witty, poised, a great storyteller, and also…a serious knockout in the red dress she was wearing (if I were President Obama, I’d get flack for that comment). I thought to myself, “wow, why wouldn’t anyone agree with her?” And that’s when I realized, perhaps it’s precisely because of all her success that we can’t bear to hear her message. She herself brought up an example of how as men become more successful, they become more likeable, while as women become successful, their likeability drops (cf Barack vs Hillary 2008). And maybe that's what’s happened to Sheryl Sandberg.
Why don’t we like her? Is it our own insecurity as women, our own tendency to compare, to disparage and critique when we feel envious? Is it our own internal “stuff” keeping us from supporting other smart, successful, hard-working sisters out there? I do think so. It reminds me of a pretty funny, candid conversation I overheard between two women recently. One woman said about another friend: “She has a flat stomach and a great butt. I hate her.” Instead of the envy, girlfriend, why don’t you ask your friend what diet and exercise regimen is getting her so toned? Why don’t we let ourselves learn from other women’s great examples?
Gloria Steinem was recently asked about her thoughts on this Lean In phenomenon in the New Yorker. Wisely, she said:
“Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice. Meanwhile Trump, whose brain is deteriorating under the heat of his toupee, is fine giving advice.”
You might not agree with everything Sheryl Sandberg says, nor might you want to live your life the way she has, but at least give a successful lady a chance to contribute to the conversation. She’s accomplished amazing things in her meteoric career, and personally, I’m going to buy the book, lean in, and learn from her wisdom.
And I’m going to do some squats.