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Five Problems With the Feminism of Facebook’s New Top Executive

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Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman, might not be the women’s-rights champion she’d like to be.

David Schultz

At face value, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is a badass feminist warrior, ally of working women everywhere. She’s one of the most prominent women in a male-dominated Silicon Valley and she’s using her influence to encourage other women to join her at the top. Her solution, which she’s evangelizing all over the place — TED Talks, commencement speeches, and most recently in the profile of her in the New Yorker — is that women might just need to man up a little bit. Her advice for women comes in three appropriately buzzy mottos: “lean in” (match men for ambition and assertiveness); “make your partner a real partner” (marry someone who will pitch in at home); and “don’t leave before you leave” (don’t make career decisions based on the needs of children you don’t have yet).

Sandberg’s doing a lot of good by advocating for gender equality and encouraging women to be bold and aim high, and she probably deserves our admiration just for her willingness to be Mark Zuckerberg’s relatable half. But there are a few elements of her plan for women’s empowerment that don’t sound so great for women:

1. She thinks men are self-aggrandizing jerks, so women should be too.

In Sandberg’s commencement speech at Barnard this year, she said, “Ask a woman why she did well on something and she’ll say, ‘I got lucky. All of these people helped me. I worked really hard.’ Ask a man and he’ll say or think, ‘What a dumb question. I’m awesome.' Women need to take a page from men and own their own success.”

Firstly, that makes it sounds like the men in Sandberg’s office need a lesson in tact. But also, what boss wouldn’t prefer the first answer? Confidence is great, but that whole idea that "feminism" means "women nut-up and become assholes like men" is old-fashioned and deeply flawed.  

2. She chastises her staff members for being too “girly.”

In the New Yorker profile, Sandberg criticizes women for asking “girl questions” about mentorship or maternity leave, since men ask “business questions.” Pressed further about what constitutes a girl question, she and her staff conclude that a question might become a girl question if it sounds too “whiny.” Stick to professional, masculine subjects like exchange rates. Or golf.

But Sandberg only practices what she preaches when it’s to her advantage. She’s read the studies — she quoted them in both of her speeches — which demonstrate that women are liked less when they become managers because they’re perceived as “violating the feminine stereotype of being ‘nurturing’ and ‘supportive’ and ‘helping other people succeed.” And in her own career, she's savvily corrected for that perception by emphasizing the same "female" concerns in herself that she counsels others against. According to the New Yorker, she gets a lot of praise from her coworkers for being open about her personal life and talking about her marriage and her guilt as a working mom. She’s also happy to take a “supportive” backseat to her boss, Mark Zuckerberg. You know, “girly” stuff. It seems to be working: Zuckerberg loves her, particularly “that low-ego element, where you can help the people around you and not be the face of all the stuff.”

3. She doesn’t believe in the glass ceiling.

Sandberg’s bored of talking about social or institutional barriers to women’s success. “Much too much of the conversation is on blaming others, and not enough is on taking responsibility for ourselves,” she says. “If you don’t believe there’s a glass ceiling, there’s no need." But however successful Sandberg has been, pretending it's not harder for women to become top-level executives doesn’t make it easier, and telling women to “take responsibility” saddles them with extra guilt if, after years of "leaning in" as hard as they can, they still can’t become Sandberg. 

Interestingly, it seems like even Sandberg might be living under a glass ceiling herself: she’s conspicuously absent from the board of Facebook, which just added its sixth (male) member, and while she’s a powerful executive, she’s still not The Boss. Whether she’s bumping her head or opting out is hard to say — but it doesn’t mean that other women aren’t getting bruised.

4. She’s a little too perfect and a little too lucky.

Maybe Sandberg isn’t overly concerned with institutional barriers because she's never met one that slowed her down. At Harvard, she was that kid — the one who works harder than everyone even though she’s already the smartest, the one who attracts attention from professors without ever raising her hand. Despite the fact that she never spoke in his class, Larry Summers was so impressed by her final paper that he volunteered to advise her thesis, and then hired her at the World Bank. Since then she’s made a profession out of being that kid. Under Summers, she became chief of staff to the Treasury before she turned thirty. And then she joined a not-yet-profitable startup called Google, and helped turn it into, well, Google.

Sandberg has clearly earned her success, but what about the girl who wrote the second-best paper at Harvard and didn’t get singled out by Larry Summers? What about the girl who couldn’t afford to go to Harvard at all? Sandberg tells women that success depends on ambition and determination, but those aren't the only factors. Her story speaks pretty loudly: hard work is great, but so are an affluent upbringing, powerful mentors, and incredible timing.

5. She’s taking the easy way out.

Cleverly, Sandberg has taken a stance on this issue that goes down easy for pretty much everyone. She inspires women to take control of their own destinies, and she doesn’t freak out men because she doesn’t ask them to change their attitudes, behaviors, or business models. Patricia Mitchell, president and CEO of Paley Center for Media, argues that Sandberg is appealing because she’s not complaining, which is a pretty gloomy view of Sandberg's success as a gender-equality advocate. If even a portion of her success stems from the fact that she doesn't ruffle feathers, that's pretty disheartening, especially since that's not a quality any male executive would ever embrace.