AND THE PROBLEM WITH AMERICA’S WOMEN LEADER
On 11 March, the same day t hat Sher y l Sandberg’s much- anticipated career book was released, Time magazine displayed a portrait of her on its cover with the ironic headline: Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful.
This cover appearance was a first for the 43-year-old Facebook chief operating officer and unofficial head girl of Silicon Valley, who helped Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg turn his dorm room start-up into a $67bn empire. Her debut book, entitled Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is a 240-page extended advice column that seeks to answer the question of why women are struggling to achieve top positions in the male-dominated upper echelons of the workplace. It also offers insights based on her own auspicious rise to the top. Time ’s choice of headline, which hovers ominously over Sandberg’s petite frame, is prophetic to say the least.
Sandberg first delivered her exhortation in a series of highly documented talks in 2010, starting with a much discussed TED talk in which she bemoaned the paucity of female leaders in top government and corporate tiers and suggested that the phenomenon was largely due to a gender-specific unwillingness to “lean in”, suggesting that women were inherently holding back on career opportunities due to a combination of self-doubt, fear of coming off as too aggressive, and an inclination to “leave before you leave” – the act of scaling back work responsibilities prematurely in anticipation of having a family. The book bolsters her message with exhaustive research, anecdotes from her successful corporate contemporaries and offers solutions to remedy the situation. Don’t be afraid to “sit at the table”, own our own success, let go of the fear of being disliked.
In the days following, and even preceding the book’s release, a pattern of vitriolic criticism emerged. Most of the critiques were derivative spats by female journalists, who filled column inches and blog posts with similar disparaging remarks that Sandberg’s approach was elitist, that her book was a vanity project, her online organisation a thinly-veiled personal marketing campaign, and that her authority on the subject was undermined by her position of privilege. The list goes on and on. The fact that the majority of these critics also admitted, rather sheepishly, that they had failed to take the time to actually read the book says as much about the state of journalism in modern society as it does about the unhealthy obsession with public takedowns in modern America.
Her antagonists all seem to agree on one thing: That Sandberg’s attempt to inspire, although well-meaning, gets misconstrued as an act of blaming when it translates into the vernacular of the everyday women. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a gender consultant as quoted in The New York Times, puts it: The real problem is that Sandberg “does what too many successful women before