27 Dec 2018

Let’s not leave boot marks on Sandberg’s face as we walk away from Lean In

Recent scandals around Facebook have knocked Sheryl Sandberg off both her business and feminist pedestals. Can we wave goodbye to her Lean In strategy without making her pay double for failing?

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
Let’s not leave boot marks on Sandberg’s face as we walk away from Lean In - NewsMavens
Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Jolanda Flubacher

Which is not to say that payment is not owed. As the head of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg was found to be deeply involved in attempts to cover up knowledge of Russia’s large scale meddling, and behind a dodgy PR strategy intended to discredit people (including George Soros) critical of the platform. The chief operating officer gets the glory when things go well and the responsibility when things go south, so this is as it should be.

But, as the media and the public express their disappointment and outrage,  Sandberg is taking virtually all the heat, while Zuckerberg and Facebook’s board of directors are spared. Though Sandberg is top brass at Facebook, Kara Swisher points out that it’s Mark Zuckerberg who is the CEO -- he knew what was happening and has the final say in his company. He’s at least as much to blame. Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan makes a pretty clear case for his resignation, seconded by Pivot’s Scott Galloway who points out that it’s actually the board of director’s job to make this happen. Unfortunately, aside from these knowledgeable voices, this side of the story doesn’t get much attention. It looks like all the cover ups and shady practices aren’t going to have any formal consequences.

Except for Sandberg, whose reputation and contribution to feminism are getting flushed down the toilet with complete abandon.

Though there are good reasons to criticize Sandberg’s Lean In manifesto, the current mad rush to discredit it entirely neglects to acknowledge her contribution to the evolution of feminist thought. This Sandberg has undoubtedly done. Stay with me.

First let's address the criticism -- it bubbled up almost immediately after Lean In was published when women of color and less privileged backgrounds pointed out that Sheryl’s go-getting, right mindset, confident attitude didn’t recognize the challenges they face. A bit later working mothers joined the critics. Sandberg advised them to “not leave until you leave” -- meaning don’t slow down when you are pregnant and jump right back into the work fray after maternity leave. If you lean in enough, you will make it all work. This advice turned out to be no good. Or at least, to quote Michelle Obama’s recent statement on the subject, “That shit doesn’t work all the time.” Trying to combine motherhood with an intense all-in career requires either magic, very large sums of money, or a stay-at-home dad. According to women who have tried it, if you don’t have these privileges, or if you are a single parent, leaning in will only get you in trouble.

So why am I standing up for Sandberg?

Because the thinking that women need to toughen up, play by men’s rules and fix their attitude has been the prevailing narrative about modern workplace feminism for the last ten years. Sandberg didn’t invent this way of thinking about women’s success, she packaged and popularized it. In Lean In she quotes a body of social science that had been accumulating for years. The studies on power posing, imposter syndrome and gendered negotiation strategies were done way before Sandberg burst onto the scene. The thinking that women were doing something wrong in business had been driving research all over the world. Sandberg collected it, added her story and created a manifesto that seemed right on the money. The science was there and she was the final, living proof that the self-improvement formula worked.

Today we know that the problem with Lean In is not that it’s all wrong. It’s that it isn’t enough.

Having the guts and the confidence, knowing your stuff and working your butt off is how women of privilege can become successful. But mothers and women from minority groups face hurdles that Leaning In can't clear. We need new policies and new science to make professional success equally available in these circumstances.

But we wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t tried the Lean In approach, and if the conversations around the book hadn’t brought intersectionality and motherhood bias into the spotlight. As a result of her book, its criticism and Sheryl Sandberg’s high profile, the feminist agenda is further along than it would be if Sheryl had not assumed the role of mentor to the masses. 

As we bid her famous mantra farewell and move to more inclusive feminist strategies, we have Sheryl Sandberg to thank for making women’s place in business a topic of center table discussions and for inspiring circles that convinced many women in business to lean on each other rather than toughing it out alone.

The least we can do in return is make sure her contribution doesn’t get thrown to the wolves along with her leadership mistakes, while the men on Facebook’s board and its untouchable founder walk away without a scratch.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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