Before Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, started
to write "Lean In," her book-slash-manifesto on women in the workplace,
she reread Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." Like the
homemaker-turned-activist who helped start a revolution 50 years ago,
Sandberg wanted to do far more than sell books.
Sandberg, whose ideas
about working women have prompted both enthusiasm and criticism, is
attempting nothing less than a Friedan-like feat: a national discussion
of a gender problem that has no name, this time in the workplace, and a
movement to address it.
When her book is published March 11,
accompanied by a carefully orchestrated media campaign, she hopes to
create her own version of the consciousness-raising groups of yore:
"Lean In Circles," as she calls them, in which women can share
experiences and follow a Sandberg-crafted curriculum for career success.
(First assignment: a video on how to command more authority at work by
changing how they speak and even sit.)
"I always thought I would
run a social movement," Sandberg, 43, said in an interview for "Makers,"
a new documentary on feminist history.
And yet no one knows
whether women will show up for Sandberg's revolution, a top-down affair
propelled by a fortune worth hundreds of millions on paper, or whether
the social media executive can form a women's network of her own. Only a
single test "Lean In Circle" exists.
With less than three weeks
until launch - which will include a spread in Time magazine and splashy
events like a book party at New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's
home - organizers cannot say how many more groups may sprout up.
her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard
degrees, dual stock option riches (from Facebook and Google, where she
also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household
help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.
more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care,
embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book
acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?
don't think anyone has ever tried to do this from anywhere even close
to her perch," said Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College, who
invited Sandberg to deliver a May 2011 commencement address about gender
in the workplace that caught fire online. (Sandberg, who will grant her
first book interview to the CBS program "60 Minutes," declined to
comment for this article.)
Despite decades of efforts, and some
visible exceptions, the number of top women leaders in many fields
remains stubbornly low. For example, 21 of the current Fortune 500 chief
executives are women.
In her book, to be published by Knopf,
Sandberg argues that is because women face invisible, even subconscious,
barriers in the workplace, and not just from bosses. In her view, women
are also sabotaging themselves.
"We hold ourselves back in ways
both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our
hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," she writes,
and the result is that "men still run the world."
to take women through a collective self-awareness exercise. In her book,
she urges them to absorb the social science showing they are judged
more harshly and paid less than men; resist slowing down in mere
anticipation of having children; insist that their husbands split
housework equally; draft short- and long-term career plans; and join a
"Lean In" circle, which is half business school and half book club.
project has the feel of a social experiment: What if women at major
corporations could review research on how to overcome gender barriers,
along with instruction on skills like negotiation and communication?
Will working women, already stretched thin, attend nighttime video
lectures on "Unconditional Responsibility" and "Using Stories
The instructions for the gatherings, provided to The
New York Times by an outside adviser to the project, are precise, down
to membership requirements (participants can miss no more than two
monthly meetings per year) and the format (15-minute check in, three
minutes each for personal updates, a 90-minute presentation, then
Sandberg has asked a wide array of women to
contribute their success stories to her new website. (Jill Abramson, the
executive editor of The Times, wrote an essay, and the newspaper is one
of many corporations to sign on to the project.) The written requests
ask for positive endings, suggesting that tales closing with missed
promotions or broken marriages are unwelcome.
Hoping to reach
beyond an elite audience, Sandberg and her foundation joined forces with
Cosmopolitan magazine, which is publishing a 40-page supplement to its
April issue devoted to Sandberg's ideas, and plan to spread her message
to community colleges, according to those involved in the project.
criticism is also starting to build: that Sandberg places too much of
the onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible
demands, and too little on government and employers to provide better
child care, more flexible jobs and other concrete gains.
"does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other
women for not trying hard enough," Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a consultant
who works with companies to improve their gender balance, wrote after
watching a video of Sandberg speaking on the topic at the World Economic
Forum in Davos last month.
"Every resistant man on the planet
will be able to quote her" saying that women simply must become more
ambitious, Cox continued. (Sandberg writes that she focuses on internal
barriers because the external ones get more attention.)
project, according to members of her launch committee and their
solicitations, asks little of the corporations signing on as "launch
partners," which include American Express, Google, Sony, Johnson &
Johnson and multiple media businesses; mostly that they lend their logo
to Lean In and distribute its materials to employees. In exchange, they
will get recognition for supporting the Lean In cause, the solicitation
Sandberg's chief critic has been Anne-Marie Slaughter, a
Princeton professor and former top State Department official, who
published an Atlantic Magazine article titled "Why Women Can't Have It
All," last year arguing that feminism - and Sandberg - were holding
women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success.
then, both women quietly developed perhaps the most notable feminist
row since Friedan refused to shake Gloria Steinem's hand decades ago.
to several people who have spoken to both women, Sandberg felt
blindsided by Slaughter's criticisms, and although they briefly
exchanged emails, Sandberg stopped replying and refused joint speaking
Slaughter continued her commentary.
Sandberg is both superhuman and rich," she told Fortune magazine,
implying that her advice makes little sense for anyone who is not.
"She's made a real contribution with the book, but it's only half the story," Slaughter said in an interview.
Slaughter-Sandberg match may represent what some may see as a welcome
new phase in the debate over work and motherhood. The "mommy wars," with
working and stay-at-home mothers sniping at one another's choices, to
no clear end, may have finally run their course.
Instead, Sandberg, Slaughter and many others are arguing about the best strategy for fulfilling feminism's promise.
you tell women to look inside themselves, you're letting the
corporations and government off the hook," said Spar, the Barnard
president, and "if you focus on the corporations and the governments,
you're not being realistic."
Sandberg, who wrote a senior thesis
at Harvard on the correlation between domestic violence and women's
income, and who has championed women at Google and Facebook, shows no
sign of relenting. On top of running a major company and rearing two
young children - her second husband, Dave Goldberg, is chief executive
of SurveyMonkey, another technology company - she has thrown herself
into her new project.
Although she insists she is committed to
Facebook, which might be awkward for her to leave given its rocky
initial public offering, some wonder whether "Lean In" is the first step
toward a new career for her, perhaps in politics.
"She is using
all of her social capital on this," said Rachel Sklar, founder of a
networking list for women in technology, who is on the Lean In launch
Asked how Sandberg would balance her demanding job with
the creation of a new movement, a member of the team offered a
tentative answer: She plans to use her vacation days.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service