Take a look at this bevy of mostly young, mostly Caucasian, mostly gorgeous women (above). They’re the team behind Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation – the beginnings of what she hopes will become a movement. The sight knocked the breath right out of me; wisdom emerging from women the age of my sons. Nobody who, as we love to say, “looks like me.” Not only are they young, they’re also unapologetically attractive. Sandberg and her team show no fear that such a bevy might give rise to questions.
Once my breath returned, as I considered the page before me, I understood that Sandberg’s Lean In is aimed at a new generation, and that’s fair – and necessary. But boy, has she taken fire for her trouble.
She’s too lucky (and pretty) to be credible
The photo also illuminates some of what has produced such nastiness and disdain toward Ms. Sandberg’s new organization and her book: could she and her team be too lucky, too smart, too rich, and living too far from the reality of most women’s lives?
Of course, that’s not a new, or fair question. Gloria Steinem once wrote that when she returned to her (women’s) college for a reunion, she was praised not for what she’d accomplished or created, but because she was “so thin.” This kind of schadenfreude clearly did not begin with 21st Century Foxes.
Not so fast with the good deeds Sheryl
Early reaction to Sandberg’s book, to be published March 11, supports this idea. A successful, attractive, Harvard Phi Beta Kappa with a cool husband, two kids and millions of dollars offers her time, her considerable intellect and her resources and tries to share what she’s learned, to reach down and help some of the women coming up behind her. And like so many others, this good deed does not go unpunished. The book has been trashed well before publication.
The super-columnist Maureen Dowd, for example, wrote: “She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women’s revolution.” Sadly, there’s plenty more where that came from.
What these detractors don’t necessarily acknowledge is that Sandberg is looking to support women who aspire to the level that empowers them to mandate changes for the rest of us; if women don’t get to the place where job policy and standards are set, those policies and standards will never change. The ambition to get there is a luxury to women in many jobs. But that ambition is critical to those who seek to lead organizations, she says, and we need to learn to embrace it. To worry less about being liked and more about being paid fairly; to actively seek and solicit the positions and authority we want; to find support, not just in the ladies’ room (where so many women my age retired to weep in frustration or disappointment) but also in conscious gatherings from other women.
Of course, the book raises real questions. Smart commentators have asked if Sandberg is perhaps “blaming the women” and asking us to redefine ourselves rather than asking for a redefinition of the workplace. That’s a fair question. Even if she’s right that we need to change – and she probably is, how will all this affect women who work by the hour – the “Nickled and Dimed” crew who are poster women for a need for workplace policy reform as well? Does she, they continue, understand “working women’s lives?” Worth asking.
The truth, of course, is that we need to change both our environment and ourselves. The advice and suggestions I read on Lean In’s website would have been worth the world to me in all the years I spent screwing up by trying not to make people mad. That was always when it happened. I had a pretty good gut for decisions and no backbone when conflict was involved. I needed help to grow some courage.
Even so, perhaps another place we women should lean into is our own tendency to judge one another so harshly, so quickly. Not only does that hamper all efforts to move forward, it also papers over some real questions. Where do the issues raised by Anne Marie Slaughter fall in this conversation? Would Sandberg’s ideas make it easier to manage the obstacles Slaughter found so difficult?
What do you do when you work in news and you need to be in the office because the Space Shuttle is falling out of the sky on day camp visiting day, or Anwar Sadat gets shot on the day of the first grade picnic? How many jobs permit you, as mine did, to duck out early twice a week for a month to help a 4th grader get used to a new tutor? How do you get to parent conferences if you work the night shift or take care of a sick kid if no work = no pay? Those are the system’s issues; we can’t solve them alone.
Finally, with all this happening to every woman, and lots more happening to many, why oh why oh why did so many accomplished women find it necessary to land so hard on a committed, considered effort to raise, from a position of strength and influence, the questions we all know need to be answered and offer support instead of just enjoying her talent and good fortune.
Susan Niebur, memorialized here on Care2 when she died of breast cancer, used this avatar in her campaign to help others with the disease:
And she was right.
No princess fights alone, any more than any of the rest of us. We all need one another to make change happen, and I for one thank Sheryl Sandberg for taking on the fight.