Stop Complaining about Sheryl Sandberg, You’re Just Proving Her Point

April 12, 2013
Center for Women in Business

If you’ve been following the news about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, you’ve probably realized that it’s a bit controversial. For every journalist lauding its efforts to inspire women leaders to aim for the top of their fields, there are others chastising Sandberg for not taking the average woman’s economic and child-care struggles into account. Sandberg, for her part, includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, “I am acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work…”

I think it’s important to note that when Jim Collins, a popular business management author (and a man), writes a new book on leadership or how to run a successful company, there is no such disclaimer at the beginning of his books and there is little backlash from the media. No one expects Collins to consider the millions of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, disabled, not in leadership positions, etc. Collins doesn’t take those peoples’ struggles into account because he isn’t writing for those audiences. He’s writing for corporate leaders who are in positions to make hard decisions for their companies. He’s not writing for the average worker and no one expects him to.


So why isn’t it ok for Sheryl Sandberg to do the same?


Sandberg suggests in her book that women are often assumed and expected to be nicer, more inclusive, and better caretakers than men. “Since women are expected to be concerned with others, when they advocated for themselves or point to their own value, both men and women react unfavorably.” Expecting Sandberg to write a book that addresses every single woman from every single walk of life just proves her point. It’s expecting her to be responsible for her entire gender and to make sure that all women’s stories are being told in her book. Demanding that Sheryl Sandberg, or any woman for that matter, be all things to all people while ignoring the fact that there are plenty of male authors and business leaders who are not held to this standard is unfair.


Granted, Sandberg does claim this book to be part feminist manifesto, but she doesn’t go so far as to make policy recommendations. Rather, Sandberg’s argument is focused on the individual level, just as her narrative focuses on her own story. She talks about her experiences in the workplace and offers advice on how one might approach similar situations to the ones she experienced. Certainly not everyone has had the networking or mentorship opportunities that Sandberg had. Her message won’t resonate with many women. However, let’s not let perfection be the enemy of good enough. At least she is trying to give voice to some women, particularly women that are in a position to climb the corporate ladder. At least she is starting the conversation.


If Sandberg wants to be the face of corporate feminism, then we should applaud her for it. We have precious few women in power in America’s top companies and few people willing to talk about this issue publically, let alone write a book about it. In order to advance women in the workplace at all levels, we need to celebrate when women do well and take their advice into account when they offer it rather than resent them or make excuses for their success. As Sandberg says, “I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women.”