Where Sheryl Sandberg gets it wrong
Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, offers sound career advice to women with her 'lean in' initiative. But must the answer to gender inequity always be to make women more like men? Sometimes women also need to push back and speak out – for the good of men, too.
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Some workplace norms are gendered, and those need to be challenged and changed.Skip to next paragraph
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Sandberg cites a McKinsey report that says men and women are held to different standards for promotion; women are assessed based on past performance and men based on future potential. Employees should be evaluated using the same standards applied fairly, regardless of gender.
Women who have climbed success ladders in their respective fields need to pave the way for others, speaking out on behalf of those coming behind them. Sandberg acknowledges this, using examples like asking for designated parking for pregnant women after she experienced the struggle herself to show the need for those in power to serve as advocates.
At times, leaning in may be unwise or even dangerous. The culture of some work environments makes it all but impossible for women to lean in and thrive.
Consider the US military, described by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as “an environment that enables sexual assault.” According to the Department of Defense’s own calculations, an estimated 1 in 3 female service members has been a victim of sexual assault, a risk double that of women in the general population. Many women report being assaulted by men who outrank them. Military reporting structures create situations in which some victims have to report the crime to the person who assaulted them.
Women in the military have found little success fighting the culture from within, but other women are using their power to push back on their behalf. The seven women (a record number) who serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee are calling attention to the problem of sexual assaults and demanding change. Senator Gillibrand, the Personnel Subcommittee chair, convened hearings on the issue for the first time in a decade to raise awareness and spearhead reforms.
Sandberg offers some sage advice; her book and the new foundation will surely offer some young women a much-needed push to forge ahead on their career paths with greater confidence.
But leaning in is not always the right choice. Women and men should refuse to lean in to problematic norms and instead speak out in demand of substantive change. The road to more equitable and employee-friendly workplaces also requires pushing back and speaking out.
Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.