Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Message Falls Short

SandbergWEFAM2012I was shuffling my way through the security line at the Chicago airport when I noticed a young, confident girl in front of me. She was talking to a stranger and seemed to carry herself with poise, confidence and radiance rare in young girls today. I watched her and wondered how old she was, late teens? Twenty something? The stranger talking to her asked her how old she was and she replied, “Sixteen.”

I was impressed. She still acted 16, but just seemed really comfortable in her skin.

That is what we need to teach our girls and teens.

Twenty four hours after I heard Sheryl Sandberg talk at BlogHer 2013, I keep thinking about her interview and wondering why it bugged me so much. Sandberg opened her interview by asking a group of hundreds of smart, powerful women, “How many of you were told you were bossy when you were young?” Seventy-five percent of the room raised their hand. “How many of you have been told you’re too aggressive at work?” Seventy-five percent of the room raised their hand.

“THAT is the problem.”

The problem as I see it, though, is — first, that Sandberg has a narrow view of what kind of leadership skills we should foster in young girls and, second, she assumes that women are afraid.

Instead of modeling “bossy” behavior what would happen if we taught girls leadership qualities like: assertiveness, conflict management, knowing when to push the envelope and when not to?

I understand what Sandberg is getting at with her hand raising exercise. Women are unfairly labeled in this world. Hillary Clinton is called a “B#%%$#” for being a strong leader, while her male counterparts are called role models. I think we’re getting it wrong on both accounts. To be strong, women are taught to be pushy and bossy. Men are taught to be aggressive and overbearing. Neither are the kind of leadership skills we must cultivate if we want a new generation where equality is valued.

I appreciate what Sandberg is trying to do. She’s working hard to empower women, she wants women to have a voice. I respect that. I agree that we have a long way to go in the quest for equality for women in society: equal pay for equal work, more women in leadership positions, combating sexism in the workplace and home. We have a long way to go.

But listening to her BlogHer interview I couldn’t help but feel like her message was reducing a complex issue into catchy, tweetable sound bites. It felt thin. I watched her short promotional video of her new women’s empowerment non-profit and it felt like I was watching an insincere weight loss infomercial. “I used to be afraid, and after a 12 week program with Sheryl Sandberg, now I’m not!”

Sandberg’s premise (in this interview and video; I have yet to read her book Lean In) is that we’re afraid and our fear defines us. And if we weren’t afraid, we would ask for a raise, ask for a promotion etc.

We all have fears, personally and professionally. But to operate entirely from the “Women are Afraid” framework is offensive and even harmful.

We need to foster leadership skills that teach women effective ways to speak our minds, creating a culture where women feel comfortable in their skin (which is then reflected in the office setting), conflict management, knowing when to stand your ground, and how to be assertive.

Furthermore, we need to create a business culture that supports women, we need corporate policies that accommodate motherhood, breastfeeding, wage equality, and the like. We need government policies to reflect a society that values women in leadership, and the complexities that women face as they raise families.

So am I afraid? Yes. I’m afraid of Lyme Disease and heights. I’m also afraid our society fails to see that women’s empowerment isn’t rooted in our fear, but requires a cultural shift that is multifaceted, and requires a multi-pronged solution.

As I continued to shuffle through that the security line, I felt a little glimmer of hope. The young 16-year-old continued to converse confidently with a stranger. THAT is what we need more of.

What did you think?

Originally posted at Lindsay Dahl is a seasoned organizer, blogger and freelance writer. She writes about a variety of issues ranging from food, health, the environment, women’s issues and community organizing.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License/Future Perfect at Sunrise

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    Interesting post. I’ve been the work force since the seventies and sometimes I’m very discouraged about how little has changed. Other days I’m over the moon about how much has changed. The fact that we can disagree about Sheryl Sandberg in her high profile role is I think a good sign. Carry on and keep writing. Good post.

    • Amy, I agree — one thing Sandberg has done is sparked a national conversation, and for that I’m grateful. Glad you liked the post.

    • Amy, I think that’s one of the things that “gets me” in this whole Lean In conversation. I’m the same generation as you and remember how hopeful I was in the ’70s about opportunities for women and how things look today. That is something that Sandberg, and others like her, forget. As a wise friend said to me, it’s sort of like she just took her first Women’s Studies class and is trying to put it all out there, without realizing that there are many of us who went before her, and have seen very little change.

      • Sheila Luecht

        Bingo Joanne!

      • LoveHeckerty

        You nailed in Joanne. As one listener said to me, when did she last have to change a diaper, answer the phone and deal with a repair man, all at the same time? While she made a lot of sense to me (same generatin as you) I felt she’d just discovered the decoder ring in the cereal and couldn’t wait to tell people about it. It’s not fear that holds some of us back, it’s finances, circumstances, illness, problems. Those aren’t ephemeral fears – they are real issues. If I wan’t afraid of financial failure and what that would do for my family would I write the next great american novel? You betcha! But the family has to eat before I can do that.

  • Great post. I think, in the same way that I defend the Dove commercials, that despite the thinness, the cream puff weight of it, the one thing Sandberg has really done to forward the idea of women and success is that she has us forming opinions. We are disagreeing, relating, questing, and for that I really am grateful.

    • Well said Amanda, I agree — Hearing her speak made me articulate what I felt was missing, which is a learning moment I’m grateful for.

  • Great post!

    You know…

    Fear has not kept me from success in the corporate world. The corporate world itself has kept me from success. Lack of childcare options has kept me from success. And you know what? Fear kept me IN the corporate world. So I stopped being afraid and dropped out altogether. I now work from home as a freelance writer.

    Not all of us are so great at the “aggressive” thing. Instead, girls should be nurtured to use the skills and personality that they DO have to obtain their goals. We can’t all be bitches! 🙂

    • Exactly Lynn, I don’t think bossiness is a leadership quality. I think men and women have a lot of different type of leadership qualities to lend to the professional world. Our challenge is to nurture and foster them moving forward.

  • Honestly…I have a problem taking advice from people who can afford to give advice…does that make sense?

    I get that we are supposed to be inspired by those that started from nothing and ‘made it.’ But again….I have a hard time being told to lean in when I can barely peek due to the cost of living and like said above, child care, etc. Taking risks are great when you can afford to do that. Not everyone can. I am not afraid. Nor do I want to learn how to act in a mans world…the OTHER pap we hear about the world of business. I am not afraid. I am thwarted by circumstances and frustrated. NOT afraid. I wasn’t when I was young either…I just didn’t know which questions to ask and who to ask them of….I wan’t afraid..I just didn’t have the skills and knowledge to know what to do next.

    Now I know..but my circumstances prevent a full throttle attempt and now my age and my family is my enemy… be dramatic.

    I think you can listen to people like her and be inspired or reinspired…but lets keep it real.

    • Kerry, exactly. It was hard to sit in the audience and have the “we are afraid” message repeated. I found it offensive since many women aren’t afraid, but are hamstrung by a business culture/lack of corporate policies that support women and promote workplace equality. The good news is that she has certainly sparked a discussion on what the new wave of feminism looks like.

  • Sheila Luecht

    Excellent post, moving forward we need to strike a balance with an idea that encouragement and practical experience can guide young women to make even further strides than we have. Intelligence, education and the raw material is there for both young women and young men, if we can guide both we can have balance. We can experience something closer to equality than we have.

    • Thanks Sheila, balance will be key as we evolve (hopefully) to support both boys/girls and men/women in society that supports equality.

  • I read her book (I wrote about it here on The Broad Side), and I had a bit of the same feeling you did. The best thing I think she’s done is change the tone of the conversation. It’s a small step, but it might be a very important one. For her to remain pertinent, I think she needs to change her message as well. Thanks for your observations!

  • Since I mentioned it, I thought I’d link to my review of Sandberg’s book.

  • From the outset, I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on this conversation until I’d had a chance to read the book. I finally did that on the plane out to Chicago, and I had tears streaming down my face at times in recognition of how early insecurities of mine have been tragically self-limiting. Now in my late 40s, I have far more confidence than I did 20+ years ago, yet I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different.

    But I also agree that Sandberg’s is an incomplete picture of what women face in today’s society. It is very strange to have this discussion at a time when politicians in large parts of the country are very openly trying to set women back 40 years or more. Would she have more credibility if she acknowledged that and worked to combat it? Probably.

    One thing that Sandberg did address indirectly is a critical conversation to have with young women, no matter how more confident they are than my generation; the choice of a partner. No matter where government or company policy stands on these issues, career successes will be nearly impossible without a real partnership in the home. I believe that as those norms continue to evolve, a lot of change in the form of employee expectation will shake out naturally, beginning with smart corporations who prioritize talent retention.

    • Lissie, you raise a really good point, having a supportive partner is key and many women struggle with these issues at home before even heading to the workplace. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I look forward to reading her book and will likely write about this topic again!

  • It is incorrect to assume that Sheryl made a bunch of assumptions. When you read the book, you will see that her conclusions are backed up by study after study after study. I thought I was more well-read than most people in this field, and I was surprised by many of the studies that she cited.

    As for a successful person starting this conversations … who better to talk about this than someone who actually overcame all of the roadblocks and succeeded? Again, once you read the book, you will see that she had her share of sexist comments, unequal treatment, and even a situation bordering on harassment.

    I read the book before I even knew that she was going to be speaking at BlogHer, and I loved it. I told both of my 20-something daughters to read it, and they were both shocked by the research and inspired by the message.

    • Deborah, thanks for your thoughtful response. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since writing this post, it’s that Sandberg brings up strong perspectives on her message. We’ll have to agree to disagree on some of the points, but I do think you raise a good point: it’s great to have a high profile woman talking about these issues. I’ll check out her book and perhaps be inspired to write about this again 🙂 In the meantime, I’m glad to hear you and your family are getting a lot out of her message.

  • I am so glad you wrote this! I was put off by the assumption that women are afraid, too, especially because it wasn’t just one point, it was THE point/theme of her conversation. For me the question “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” was irrelevant because I’m not afraid. And I don’t think that means I’m viewed as bossy or aggressive. I think I’m viewed as motivated and ambitious.

    • Amanda, well said. That’s a big part of why it was so hard for me to relate to her talk. Perhaps when I read her book it will illuminate me, but if that is the message that the book has been distilled down to, I’m not diggin’ it.

      • Fear is only the subject of Chapter 1. I haven’t asked her why she has chosen to focus so much on that one aspect of the book, but based upon the Lean In page on Facebook and other feedback I’ve seen on the book, that particular message seems to resonate with a huge number of women — myself included. And what is so amazing about it is that I didn’t realize it until I read the book and found myself crying through Chapter 1. Perhaps that is a message that unfolds better in a book than in a speech? I don’t get the feeling that she is saying that every single woman is held back by fear or that it dominates our daily decision making, but I’ve met many women (and even men) through the years that didn’t do something because of fear — and financial ruin is a big one! A lot of people don’t ask for a raise or don’t start a business because they’re afraid of being worse off than if they just stuck with the status quo. And in some cases, that fear is not a bad thing. Some risks are too big to take. If you’re a single mom with children to feed, you can’t be as fearless as someone who only has herself to think of. And this is going to be more common with women simply because there are not that many single dads out there.

  • Lindsay,
    Thanks for expanding the conversation on this important topic! Maybe it’s not so much fear, but balancing realism with idealism that keeps so many women teetering on the tightrope of success.

  • Great post Joanne!

    I’m afraid too. I’m afraid of oversimplified blame the victim analyses of why women aren’t getting ahead (or even even) any faster. Leaning in ain’t gonna get it until the culture of sexism and misogyny is changed, and that takes more than sound bites and circles.

  • I have to say, I’m flabbergasted by the Lean In criticism/backlash. I not only read Lean In, but I lived it. It was like reading a retrospective of my life the last 13 years since I became a mom. Everything that Sandberg suggests — asking for what you need at work, insisting that parenting/household duties get split down the middle, and almost leaving before I I had to — are things that I stumbled through as I tried to hang onto my career by my fingernails.

    Sandberg’s ultimate goal in promoting these things is to create more women leaders so that we can do what many of the commenters on this post are suggesting — change institutions from the inside to pave the way for other moms and dads that want an easier way to maintain their careers while caring for their families. I can tell you first hand that “Leaning In” works. After pioneering all of the things Sandberg suggests in my own life and career, I have a high ranking position in my organization and, after personally demonstrating to management that flexibility is possible and productive and then strongly advocated for flexibility for others, at least a dozen women in my department have been able to negotiate their own flexible work arrangements and we have been able to retain very valuable and talented employees for a number of year. And, I do know what it’s like to juggle kids, contractors and the like all at the same time. When it comes to finances, I am no where close to Sheryl Sandberg, so I’m here to tell you that the principles can apply to even “average” people. Sandberg also does not suggest that these things are easy, magically make your life perfect, or even that these principles should apply to everyone. It is simply a survival manual for those of us who want to continue to work, rise through the ranks, and maybe even change the world in the process.

    I disagree that Sandberg is suggesting across the board that women are “afraid.” Her point is that whether you label women, “bossy,” “assertive” or even “self-confident,” those labels are often perceived as negatives for us women in the workplace. It doesn’t matter what label you apply or even how you conduct yourself. Those of us who demonstrate those leadership qualities — even positive leadership qualities — are often perceived negatively while our male counterparts are perceived as “strong.”

    I also believe strongly that women — even those of us who are naturally assertive — often undervalue ourselves. It doesn’t even occur to us to ask for what we need because we simply assume “that is the way it is.” Case in point — early in my career, as I tried desperately to juggle work, a toddler and a newborn, I finally gave up and handed my resignation to my boss. Two days later, not wanting to lose a valued employee, he proposed a part-time work arrangement. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was even an option. This was not a case of me being “afraid,” it was a case of me not even thinking beyond what “is” to “what could be.” I believe if women ask for what they need, even if it seems beyond what is possible, they might be surprised at what could be accommodated.

    Judith Warner’s NYT article, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” shows the flip side of Lean In. Those who left the workforce because of its limitations are having very mixed results and feelings about their choices. So unless we’re expecting Corporate America to suddenly wake up and become more accommodating to families, or the government to step in, both of which, given the larger problems our country is facing, is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I’m having a hard time seeing the downside to changing the system from within. What alternatives do we have?

  • Emily

    I would read the book before any further articles on Sandberg and Lean In. You offer a great addition to the “movement” (teaching skills and confidence young) but I think you sell Sandberg very short in what she does to empower women.

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