Questioning Sheryl Sandberg: We’re Not “Trashing,” We’re Exploring

iStock_000014329556XSmallWhen I heard the buzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (written with Nell Scovell), I figured it was more of the same ideas I’ve been reading for years. I figured her “lean-in circles” in corporate offices would do as much good as lactation rooms. It’s easier for corporations to put a lactation room on every floor than to implement a real policy that allows for paid family leave and guaranteed job return. And it’s easier to establish “coffee klatches” than to implement real policies about equality.

I didn’t plan on reading it until I read Joan Walsh’s article at Salon, Trashing Sheryl Sandberg.” She wrote:

“I’m stunned by the venom directed at a powerful woman who declares herself a feminist when so many of her peers don’t dare to, and who writes a book to try to help other women identify the social, political and, yes, psychological factors that keep them down. You don’t have to like the book, but I don’t get the hate.”

Where is this “venom” and “hate” she talks about? Why can’t women express their opinions or even criticism without being called venomous and hateful? Even Maureen Dowd, who I don’t care to read, never really says anything that could be labeled as such. Snarky, maybe. Sarcastic, yes. Hateful, no. I don’t think Sandberg has been trashed. Walsh continues:

“I was handed a perfect case study of gender and wages in one of my early management jobs. I supervised four people, two men and two women, all talented 20-somethings, and when I came into the position, I found that the men made about 20 percent more than the women. When I consulted the people who hired them, I was told that the men asked for more money than the women. I couldn’t be insinuating that anyone was sexist, could I?”

The way I see it, the problem is not that the two women didn’t ask for more money. The problem is a system in which companies have rules on the books to fire employees who discuss their salaries with other employees. If these women don’t know what amount the others are requesting, how do they know how much they are entitled to get? Even if a woman decides to ask for more money, she probably doesn’t know that the man asked for $10,000 more and got it. What if she asks for $5,000 more and gets it but doesn’t know it’s much less than the man got? What if she asks for $15,000 and gets turned down because that’s too much? How does she handle this when she doesn’t have all the information she needs?

The real problem is a system that allows supervisors to arbitrarily apply a starting salary and/or raises. If a supervisor is approached by one employee for a raise, why not review the salaries of everyone on the staff? I think it’s time to stop blaming women for systemic problems and start questioning and changing the system.

So I started reading Sandberg’s book. She is self-deprecating to a fault. I couldn’t help thinking, wow, she is incredibly insecure. No wonder she thinks every other woman is insecure, too. That was irritating. Importantly, though, Sandberg points out that the way she pursued success is not the way that might work for every woman. That’s something Leslie Bennetts failed at miserably with her book, The Feminine Mistake.

Sandberg also says, “We all need to encourage men to lean in to their families. Unfortunately, traditional gender roles are reinforced not just by individuals, but also by employment policies.” So, I wonder — when will Mark Zuckerberg establish a nonprofit called “Lean In At Home for Men?”

Then I saw this. It’s a fairly coherent discussion on CBS This Morning on March 20, 2013, that doesn’t circle the drain into — oh, how I hate this term — a catfight. And it struck me. Maybe the conversation has finally evolved. Maybe that is the most important thing that Sandberg can do at the moment: change the conversation in a meaningful way.

I got swept up in her positive message, especially in the last chapter, where she talks about women working together to “raise both the ceiling and the floor.”

But I kept coming back to the many statistics she cited, showing she is well aware of the struggles of most working women who are not on the same level as she. Doing something directly about any of that isn’t on her to-do list. Why? Is it the class and privilege? Susan Faludi thinks so.

In Faludi’s CNN article, Sandberg left single mothers behind, Faludi says that “what’s been missed is a real opportunity that Sandberg’s proposal unintentionally spotlights: the opportunity to talk honestly about feminism and class.” She quotes Charlotte Bunch, “Class distinctions are an outgrowth of male domination,” she wrote, “a political mechanism for maintaining not only capitalism but also patriarchy and white supremacy.” We might as well add rape culture, which we’ve heard so much about recently but that’s always been there. And sexualized girlhood.

Faludi holds everyone accountable for not talking about class, especially the feminist movement in all its forms. But she challenges Sandberg specifically, “Sandberg’s book mentions single mothers in passing. But what if she were to champion them? What if the Lean In community or any group of feminist-minded women were to organize around the cause of single motherhood instead of the cause of their own self-congratulation?”

(Ironically, the quote in Sandberg’s book about single working parents is from Faludi’s 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. So we know she read Faludi. Or at least Nell Scovell did.)

In her chapter, “Let’s Start Talking About It,” Sandberg talks about changing the status quo and talking about gender issues. “Talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviors, which can transform institutions.” That’s true. But is it enough?

Peg Tyre doesn’t think so. She points out in a letter to Sandberg in the The Washington Post:

“If you want to change things for young ambitious women, here’s a little advice from me: forget trying to organize little consciousness raising groups around the country for already stressed out women. Instead, lobby your bosses to get another woman on your Facebook board, then make a public announcement that from now on, Facebook will only do business with companies in which 40 percent — even 30 percent– of their executive team is female. Good lord, Sheryl, you’d set off a quake that would reverberate from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. Forget those nasty book reviewers. It wouldn’t matter if you never sold another copy – you’d change the world for working women overnight.”

Sandberg joined the Facebook board in June 2012. The second woman on the board, Susan Desmond-Hellman, joined the board just this month. Does this means Sandberg is doing more than talking? And what does that mean for the rest of us?

Becky Gjendem is a journalist and small-business owner. She runs a Norwegian specialty shop, vær så god: a little bit of norway in iowa, and writes occasionally on her personal blog, Deep Muck Big Rake.

Image via iStockphoto

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