Five Problems With the Feminism of Facebook’s Top Executive

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

David Schultz

By Jordan Kisner

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. 

Commentarium (30 Comments)

Jul 20 11 - 4:02am

I don't know about this article ... it sounds a bit "let's kick someone for being successful". Seriously, Sandberg is "a little too perfect"?!

Sure she could be doing more, and fine maybe she's not an ideal representative of the feminist cause to her coworkers. But at least she's playing the (obviously good) hand she's got, and helping to do something about the shortage of women in Silicon Valley. Of course there's still a glass ceiling -- but isn't it still useful to have someone out there, prominently pushing the boundaries, rather than waiting till every last barrier to women's success is dismantled?

(Oh, and apart from Zuckerberg, none of Facebook's employees are on the board. That's what boards are for! But Sandberg *is* on the boards of Disney and Starbucks.)

Jul 20 11 - 7:37pm

I think the article is focusing on the fact that she's not really doing anything about the shortage of women in Silicon Valley. Would women want to work for a female executive who berates employees for having "girl questions", which Sandberg describes as sounding "whiny"???? Using "girl" and "whiny" as synonyms is not doing anything for women at all.

People really need to understand that just having arbitrary women in "powerful" positions is NOT the goal of feminism. We need to have men and women evaluated on the same criteria without gender bias (like not assuming that women are whinier than men). The woman who gets to be in a powerful position some day should get there because she is the BEST out of all the men and women, not because she's the poster girl for the pretty, athletic, go-getter females who are "perfect". Women already have enough pressure to be perfect. When are men ever asked how they can leave their kids at home to go back to work?

Jul 20 11 - 7:39pm

I'd fuck her, but I wouldn't vote for her.

Jul 21 11 - 5:33pm

I'm laughing so hard I can't breathe.

Jul 20 11 - 8:27am

What a terrible, whiny, jealous, self-serving, unbalanced, pedantic article that ties itself in knots...

She's "too perfect and too lucky" - an this poses a problem with her feminism, how?! Is it necessary to "freak men out" as a female executive? According to your own quotes, she encourages women to own their own success; this doesn't neccessarily translate as "nut up and become assholes like men".

Go Sheryl!
There's too many quibbles to go on.

Jul 20 11 - 4:49pm

this reflects my initial reaction to this article as well.

also in general I get the sense that the article is really reaching an awful lot.

Jul 20 11 - 8:50am

Point 4 would better read as "She's too privileged".

Jul 20 11 - 11:06am

Yeah, sorry, I agree with wb and B. This article sucks.

Jul 20 11 - 11:28am

Wow, I have no idea why everyone is focusing on point 4. If anything, point 4 reads like the "gotta make it a 5 point list" point. Point 2--that's the one that got me. If your definition of feminism derides women for being women, that's pretty fucking bad. She sounds like a bad ole fashioned female misogynist.

Jul 20 11 - 1:47pm


Jul 20 11 - 12:38pm

I enjoyed this article simply because it's much deeper than most nerve articles. Hey, at least it made me actually think.

Jul 20 11 - 1:43pm

Exactly! I'm proud of Nerve for this

Jul 20 11 - 12:39pm

"...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?"

um... get on your hustle or come to terms with being the smartest nigga at starbucks?


Jul 21 11 - 4:45pm

Is the Starbucks line yours, because that is some rad shit right there.

Jul 24 11 - 7:45pm

Dude, stop drooling on his fanclub poster. It's unbecoming.

Jul 20 11 - 6:03pm

Excellent article, it explores a real challenge for women and minorities who reach the executive suite: celebrating rewards based on achievements (being a token is not helpful for the advancement of women); acknowledging barriers that still exist for other women (this may mean acknowledging some unearned privileges) and championing a work enivronment of inclusion (not assimilation).

Jul 20 11 - 8:11pm

1. It seems the author of this article, Kisner, hasn't even read the NYT profile she references several times. Nowhere does Sandburg call men self-aggrandizing. She simply encourages women to be more confident in their success and less self-effacing-- as many men are.

2. Kisner criticizes Sandburg for not "asking [men] to change their attitudes, behaviors, or business models." In my opinion, THIS is the appeal of Sandburg's brand of feminism. She exhorts women to take their careers and their lives into their own hands. The rise of women in the corporate world (or anywhere, for that matter) should not be at the cost of men's. Women must earn their success, as men have. This is the only way they will be respected, we can move towards a truly equal society.

3. [...] a little too lucky. Maybe Sandberg isn’t overly concerned with institutional barriers because she's never met one that slowed her down."
Really?? You think Sandburg is where she is today because of luck? She attended a public high school. She got accepted to arguably, one of the best universities, if not THE best university in the country. She was the "top graduating student in economics" (Wikipedia) in her class. Now tell me this was all luck and that she broke no "barriers" to reach where she is today.

Jul 21 11 - 12:16am
Jordan Kisner

So glad to see this article has sparked a debate!

MS: There wasn't a New York Times profile, it was a profile in The New Yorker, and the bullet point criticizing Sandberg for encouraging women to join men in self-congratulation quotes a comment she made in her Barnard commencement speech. She doesn't directly call men self-aggrandizing, but the kind of male behavior she's generalizing is evidently arrogant and selfish. I understand and agree with her point that it's important for women to take ownership of their success, but telling women to do that by modeling their behavior after an unappealing stereotype of male ego isn't very productive. As to your second point, I think you're right that Sandberg's positivity is appealing and even empowering. My argument is that there are things that need to change in order for women to have an equal shot at succeeding-- little things like the attitudes of individuals to big things like the way we gender education, the barriers to working motherhood in competitive fields, and the absence of female mentorship networks.* This isn't about women's success at the expense of men, it's about the right to equal opportunity. I think Sandberg as an influential woman who has chosen to become an advocate on this subject has the obligation to be more honest about what women are up against and to be as brave in her advocacy as she's encouraging women to be in their offices.

To MS, wb and B: You're right to point out that Sandberg is a highly accomplished woman who deserves her success-- credit which I give her in the intro and #4. She's a badass. She's also being dishonest by implying that women just have to "lean in," or work hard and want it bad. Certainly she did, but there's a lot of incredible serendipity in her story and not every woman gets the opportunities that Sandberg had. She's an exceptional case and, again, I think she needs to acknowledge the barriers to success, even the ones that she didn't personally face.

*Giving credit where credit is due: Sandberg is doing a lot to foster woman-to-woman mentorship in her immediate circle of influence. This is not something she mentions in speeches, though, and she hasn't been vocal in interviews about the need she's addressing or why it's important.

Jul 21 11 - 1:49am

I return to my point, Sandberg may not be perfect but is at least doing something. Do we really expect her to have advice and advocacy that's useful for every woman everywhere? The commencement speech was at Barnard, the most selective women's college in the country!

I happen to think that out of the pool of women with privileged and elite backgrounds, more of them ought to be in the upper ranks of business (after all, that's how the men got there). Now of course addressing that won't go anywhere near solving every issue relating to women in the workplace, but it's one step. And for those women, a big factor really is the need to focus more on owning their own success, plus all the other things Sandberg is talking about.

Jul 21 11 - 2:17pm
Seattle Blonde

I really liked this article: I read the New Yorker profile and was getting pretty annoyed with Sandberg by the end of it, so I'm glad someone has pointed out that she really isn't doing anything about gender equality in the workplace. Or, not as much as she could be doing....

One way to achieve gender equality is for all professional women to become exactly like men insofar as their leadership style, their structuring of work/home life, and so on. Then we might have a world full of women who are in leadership positions...but only because they adopt standard male behaviors. Another way is to begin breaking down the paradigm of leadership we have, in order to accommodate more diverse models.

I think Kisner's point is more that Sandberg may be doing a lot about the first way, but nothing about the second. I see it where I work: women who don't have children constantly complain that maternity leave is an unfair policy and that the workplace shouldn't help new mothers out. This, mind you, is in the supposedly liberal/progressive world of academia. And let me tell you, no women in that department HAVE children because they know they would be crucified if they did.

If women aren't willing to demand these kind of paradigm shifts, and aren't willing to support each other in it, and instead are called out by people like Sandberg for being "girly," there will be absolutely no real progress in the workplace except for the hardworking - but let's be honest, also privileged - few.

Jul 24 11 - 12:29am

Why on earth does she need to "do something" about inequality in the workplace? Some people will have the desire to "do something" about inequality, and that will become their work. Other people will have the desire to "do something" in their job, and that will become their work.

Jul 21 11 - 5:21pm

Nice to see that Nerve columnists just piggyback on real journalism that appears in The New Yorker. Thanks for the original thoughts. How about doing a report on articles in the NYTimes Magazine?

Jul 21 11 - 10:35pm

@Wow - we'll get there. Rome wasn't built in a fuckign day, you know?

PS - Nerve is a blog, not a news site. Learn the difference and you won't be so spiritually destroyed by their articles.

Jul 24 11 - 1:57am
Liz T

Nerve has been around for 14 years--and it was a lot, lot better at the beginning. They used to have fiction and photography, it was awesome. Now they're just ripping off every other blog's format. I hadn't read Nerve in years, I just got linked to this article. From the other comments, this is the most insightful thing on here lately, which is scary.

Jul 22 11 - 10:05am
Jen Durr

Where is it written that Ms. Sandberg must be a feminist just because she's female? Lots of people don't agree with, or don't even understand, the feminist agenda; perhaps she's one of them.

Jul 22 11 - 12:08pm

www. luckyvogue. com

Jul 22 11 - 9:49pm

I never liked ladder climbing women anyways.

Jul 23 11 - 4:22am

Great article actually. #4 is an important point...not only for Sandberg, but for every "self-made" man or woman that can't seem to recognize potential barriers to success. Credit to Sandberg for maximizing her potential...but the reality is, many people don't, and often its not due to a lack of ambition or hard work.

Aug 13 11 - 2:30pm

she fu-ked her professor and other men to get ahead.

Aug 31 11 - 12:37pm

Whoa, whoa, get out the way with that good inofrmaiton.