Is Sheryl Sandberg the Enemy?

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.

In the last couple of days, an anti-backlash has emerged, in the Washington Post, The Observer, The Atlantic and Salon among others.  Maybe the fever has broken.

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.



Navpreet K.
Navpreet K.4 years ago

I think people who have the courage to propose a change are always criticized in positive and negative ways.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G4 years ago


Darren Woolsey
Darren Woolsey5 years ago

Maybe men feel threatened...?

Roger M.
Past Member 5 years ago


Gene Jacobson
Gene J5 years ago

(continued)is working remotely and allows for intangible like a better work-life balance. Playing business games like the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th century will get you what they got, highly dissatisfied workers who will jump ship at the earliest whiff of a better opportunity. If you want to be in constant hiring and training mode, continue the old ways, if you want to be on the cutting edge, collaborating better and more the ever before, producing more and increasing return on investment to shareholders, then get aboard the train heading forward into the 21st century, if you want the good old days which were really not so good at all, ride in the caboose and cut yourself loose while the rest of the world whizzes by. These young women are at the forefront of a new movement, sure they'll have critics, but time will prove them right. It is possible, with some planning and intelligence, to have it all. And since, it is, why not?

Gene Jacobson
Gene J5 years ago

"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."

I'd like to know what Maureen Dowd is paid to trash other women, just for fun. The article is correct, over the course of my own career, I have seen the scene played out countless times where a given woman's worst critic was another women. A woman who had learned to play like men. Not in a good way. There are other ways of working, depite what Yahoo and Best Buy have done, teleworking IS the way of the future and those two small reversals, regardless how long they last, will not change that. We have the technology to be in the same virtual room at the same time, in real time and have a real discussion or meeting. Where each of us is, is not relevant to the discussion, whether the results required are achieved is. Companies who focus on results, specific, measurable results will find their bottom line improving, when they implement something like a Results Only Work Place - NOT Remote, mind you, they will also find their productivity increasing. This reduces congestion on the freeway, less maintenance needed on roads, allows businesses to have a smaller carbon footprint when some portion of their workforce is

Lynn Squance
Lynn S5 years ago

As I read the article, I thought of today's conversation with my physiotherapist, a conversation about Saadi Shirazi, Sheikh Mosleh al-Din, a medieval Persian poet born in 1200 CE.

From Wikipedia:
"The world honors Saadi today by gracing the entrance to the Hall of Nations in New York with this call for breaking all barriers:

Of one Essence is the human race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base;
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace. "

To put this in non poetic language, when one is slighted, all are slighted. When one suffers injustice, all suffer injustice. In the terms of this article, when one woman is kept down, all are; and when one is raised up, there is hope that all will be raised up.

We may not all benefit in the same way from the work of Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In team, but as a part of the whole, we all benefit. We don't do "it" alone.

Adrea Craft-Gentry
Adrea Craft5 years ago

Anyone willing to take on equality of any kind is alright by me. Although I agree that this article was very vague on why this woman is my enemy?

Heidi Aubrey
Heidi Aubrey5 years ago

Cynthia S, the author of the this article could have been far clearer in describing Sheryl Sandburg's mission statement.

Written as is, one has to really try to understand what she is talking about and what the point exactly is.

Any writer should first be able to cleanly state Who, What or What for, Where, Why, and How .

I learned this as a writing skill in 8th grade English class when we (school then) required actual paper writing as a requisite for the class(plus proper grammer and spelling).

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks Cynthia for this extremely interesting article.