Message to Sheryl Sandberg: Lean Forward


Written by Marie C. Wilson

In the wake of the news that Facebook’s Number Two, Sheryl Sandberg, might become a billionaire and therefore one of the richest self-made women in America after the company goes public, the New York Times featured a story about her growing power as a role model and inspiration for women’s advancement.

I really get that.  I recall reading an article about Sandberg a few years back and thinking, “I wish I had known a woman like her when I was growing up.”  The only visible women in my 1940’s childhood were movie stars—not exactly the kind of role model I had in mind.

Powerful women have sometimes been reluctant to use their positions to speak about the importance of women in leadership, probably assuming it will affect their relationships with powerful men.  Sandberg is changing that by example.  In addition, she is attracting more women to leadership in technology fields, a place where few women stay, much less lead.  So I give her enormous kudos.

Sandberg’s message about women not “blaming men” and taking responsibility for their own careers is a legitimate one.  Encouraging women’s ambition with phrases like “lean forward” and “keep your foot to the pedal” has been a position that many of us have advocated for decades. But there’s nothing like a visible future billionaire to hammer the point home in the most visible of ways.

My only hesitation about her message is that it is about “fixing women,” a stand-alone strategy that I find exhausting and only part of the picture.  I wish Sandberg—admired by both genders—would alter her tactic and encourage men to “lean forward” as well, but for them it would be leaning forward as sponsors of worthy women.

Truthfully, I look into the world and I see that women have leaned so far forward that it’s a wonder they can still stand.  The message should not just be about our taking responsibility; it should also have a concurrent message about the accountability of organizations and (often) the men who run them as mentors and allies.

My colleagues and I, without blaming men, have read (and written) scores of books, created institutions, and had training (and trained others) in every skill of leadership.  We have led Washington marches and marched into the offices of politicians on behalf of women’s power and leadership. We have led living wage campaigns for decades and lobbied (unsuccessfully) for adequate childcare and choice—the kind of real change that women who aren’t wealthy would need if they ever expected to put the pedal to the metal.  It is not just hard work that we need: We must have essential changes in work, family and political systems if ordinary women ever expect to truly lead alongside men.

What we need is for women like Sandberg to lean ever further forward.  I love that she talks about more choices for men, like paternity leave, but I would be very grateful if she’d also talk about men “fathering” organizations that are truly fair in all their systems of hiring, sponsoring and promoting women.  There is no need to blame anyone, man or woman; we have all the data necessary for a solid business case in favor of diversity and women’s leadership.

Sandberg, beginning with Facebook, could push for women on her all-male corporate board, for instance—especially considering the high use of Facebook by females.  I know she doesn’t have total control of this, but she is the strongest advocate I can imagine for such change.

I’m sure Sandberg’s speeches are attended by men as well as women, but I think it would be fabulous if she addressed the males in the audience directly (and maybe she does), reminding them of the need to lift as they rise—and not just to lift other men.

Pay inequality for women is also an area we still cannot ignore.  Catalyst has found that women who graduate from the most prestigious schools with MBAs make less than their male counterparts, and they rarely catch up.

Most importantly, please go to the hill and lobby for comprehensive child care legislation.  I know Sandberg is an advocate for parental leave for men as well as women. But both parents struggle to work at a level that will move them forward while still staying true to their family ideals and the needs of their kids.  It is wickedly hard, and until we move legislation forward, child care will continue to be a stumbling block mostly to women rising to the highest levels in our government and our businesses.

Sandberg is one of the best champions of women in the world.  Maybe, when she’s done with Facebook, she can run for public office and make the true, permanent changes we need for the emergence of the next Sheryl Sandberg.

This post was originally posted by the Women’s Media Center.


Related Stories:

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: Why Women Should Be in Charge

Is There Finally An Animated Heroine Girls Can Look Up To?

Women Ask For Raises As Much As Men


Photo of Sheryl Sandberg from World Economic Forum via flickr


Kerrie W.
Kerrie W.4 years ago

This climate of non-attachment/non-aversion would be a social human world in harmony.

Kerrie W.
Kerrie W.4 years ago

Men, it is time for you ALL to take a step forward in the men's movement of self-examination. I am not interested in inheriting a capitalist economy rooted in the patriarchal system! I don't want to be "fathered".

I want to be cognizantly recognized as spirit first, human being next, and respected for the gender/identity I choose and define in all of my relationships in private and public life, as I live.
No lines; no reactions; no judgments.

Go find your dreams again; disembark from ancient historic group-think & deeply conditioned assumptions of extroverted domination over, at the expense of.... Begin to unravel this!

Men are not even awake, and still this transactional delusion illness continues to entrance all participants to only partially lift the lid on what comes next. Dominating and assuming what things are supposed to look like, and what we all want next.

While some basic values are universal, there is a lot of room to define how... Risking chaos, is only creative intelligence at work!

Everyone can afford to STOP being afraid to risk the BIG POSSIBILITIES of just being in this human experience!
Whatever comes next, or whatever all of this may mean, is only as far away as each person's individual willingness to encounter internal silence to hear and see more clearly without attachment or aversion, being only consciously present to what comes next_ for EACH one.

This climate of non-attachment/non-aversion would be a social human world in harm

Chad A.
Chad Anderson5 years ago

If there are going to be billionaires, I would prefer that about 50% of them be female, but I would rather have an equitable distribution of wealth instead of billionaires. Role models are great, but I would prefer a broad women's movement providing lots of role models and pushing for a more supportive social enviroment to a few high-profile role models.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari L5 years ago

How is she a rich self-made woman? Did she print her own money, sell pencils or what? Someone else made her rich. The users of FB, most likely. Rich people either have someone else buy their services or products and become filthy rich or they inherits the dough. Money doesn't fall from the sky! It's called capitalism, BTW. And, no, I'm not envious of her wealth. I have something she'll never have: True friends!

KS Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Ira L.
Ellie L5 years ago

I hope she's a Democrat.

Gloria Morotti
Gloria Morotti5 years ago

Having a lot of money indicates greed, which is not a good thing. Childcare? What happened to mothers and fathers raising their own children? Being a leader? Whatever happened to leading a normal life? Corporations are one of the entities that are destroying this planet.

Ellyn L.
Ellen L5 years ago

Interesting article.

Anne M.
Anne Molinas5 years ago

You're absolutely right. While it's great that she has been able to have this sort of extreme financial and career success, not necessarily the exact goal for all women or men, she is still an exception, and I believe that we can not merely impose our experiences on others making the assumption that if I did it, pulling myself up by my bootstraps, anyone can. Or that understanding structural limitations is blaming anyone. But yes, hopefully people with the power to encourage positive changes that will benefit others, will do so.

Lilithe Magdalene