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.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, speaks during an interview in New York March 12. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black writes: 'The best way to close [the] “ambition gap” is not to encourage women to “man up” and over-estimate their contributions, but to encourage everyone...to tell the truth.'

Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” has vaulted to the top of bestseller lists and spurred conversations in cubicles, around dinner tables, and across social media. The Facebook chief operating officer’s book, and the foundation that will be funded by book sales, challenge young women to “lean in” to their ambitions instead of “pulling back” by selling themselves short and not achieving their full professional potential.

Ms. Sandberg acknowledges that external barriers hinder women in the workplace, but focuses most of her attention on internal barriers. She urges women to have greater confidence, perform at high levels, and challenge themselves with a singular focus on achievement.

Sandberg offers some sound advice, and young women (and men) determined to climb the workplace ladder should pay attention. But leaning in is not always sensible.

Workplace disparities between women and men persist, and Sandberg identifies several. But many of the external barriers women face require far more than a pep talk or consciousness-raising to overcome. At times, women should indeed lean in and forge full-steam ahead in their workplaces, but at other times they need to push back and speak out.

Some of her solutions hark back to the early years of second-wave feminism and its more problematic assumptions. Must the answer to gender inequity always be to make women more like men? Why can’t men and women learn from one another?

For example, Sandberg quotes studies that show women play down their capabilities. When asked to estimate their grade-point averages or other objectively measurable goals, women guess too low and men guess too high. When asked the secret to their success, women are more likely to attribute it to the assistance of others, whereas men tend to claim they did it all on their own.

The best way to close this “ambition gap” is not to encourage women to “man up” and over-estimate their contributions, but to encourage everyone – men and women – to tell the truth.

And the truth is: None of us fully owns our success. The recipe for individual achievements is a complex mix of work ethic, natural strengths and talents, personal background, access to networks, and the hard work of others.

As Sandberg notes, the dominant corporate culture rewards those who claim all the credit and ignores those who helped. Instead of leaning in and perpetuating the problem, women – and men – should be pushing back against the norm of self-promotion, demanding and rewarding honesty, and speaking out on behalf of those whose essential contributions are too often overlooked and underappreciated.

Leaning in at organizations that still play by men’s rules doesn’t empower women; it trivializes their contributions. Men and women often bring different perspectives to the workplace, and both are valuable. When women enter politics, for example, the agenda expands and lawmakers pay more attention to issues that were previously overlooked.

Some workplace norms are gendered, and those need to be challenged and changed.

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.

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