Cut Her A Break

Why Do Feminists Hate Sheryl Sandberg So Much?

So the Lean In author speaks chiefly to elite women. And what’s wrong with that, exactly? They face discrimination too.

Last week, Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive famous for Lean In, the book and female-empowerment marketing campaign, announced an expansion called #leanintogether. The new twist is that it pulls men into the movement, telling them how to help women get ahead in the workplace and at their homes, and it roped in spokesmanship help from the likes of Warren Buffett and LeBron James.

Almost immediately, think pieces over whether this was actually good for women—or rather, all women—followed. It’s not a new fight. Arguments over Sandberg, especially within the left and in the world of feminism, go back to even before the book came out.

In part, this is because Sandberg is perceived to be writing about and working to address challenges faced by a small group of elite women, those who have piled up the fancy degrees, racked up experience in the corporate world, and arguably should be shattering the glass ceiling into a million little pieces but are not. “The fact that she has more effectively rallied corporate leaders of both genders around the campaign than she has rallied women of different socioeconomic classes is very telling about who the campaign is for,” the journalist Sarah Leonard told The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara.

More controversial is that rather than address the structural barriers that prevent women from getting ahead in the workplace, Sandberg has decided to speak directly to women about the ways they internalize sexism and lower expectations for themselves in the workplace. Many see this individualized approach as wrong-headed. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, writing this week in The New Republic, took that one step further and argued that the way Sandberg conducts her campaigns risks hurting lower-wage women. “Sandberg’s corporate feminism preaches individual female empowerment in the workplace (and now at home, too) rather than collective social action,” she writes, “and women who subscribe to that approach are more likely to funnel resources into advanced education and leadership training rather than into the machinery of politics and protest.”

On the one hand, I don’t disagree that there’s a particular spirit to Sandberg’s rallying cry that clashes with my own politics. I don’t see why it wouldn’t: Sandberg is a wealthy white woman who made her way through corporate America to help lead the social media behemoths that now rule us from their libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley perches, and that undoubtedly influenced her approach. She is not a social worker, a union organizer, or me, a journalist who writes about poverty and inequality.

Let’s stipulate that Sandberg’s book probably doesn’t do a whole lot for the very poor, for women who work in fields (literally and figuratively) where bosses steal their wages illegally and openly prevent them from advancing. I would disagree, though, that it’s only for women in the top rungs, or that it doesn’t inspire a sense of in-it-togetherness. One of the tools Sandberg’s campaign launched was Lean In circles—I was invited to join one by a friend, though I never really participated. People I know, and people who’ve spoken about them, include not just elites but decidedly middle-class professionals. Many took from these sessions a sense that they were not alone with their struggles at work, and felt a kind of relief to learn they weren’t imaging a subtle sexism coming from their bosses at work.

Which hints at, I think, Sandberg’s biggest contribution to the world: She gave women permission to talk about their work, to take pride in it, and to admit they wanted to be successful. In most of American society women are still required to view their roles as mothers first, and the work they do in the home as paramount. “The idea that ambition shouldn’t be hampered by gender is so commonplace as to need little defense,” says Stoker Bruenig. “The same goes for the call for dads to be involved at home.” But I think those ideas are more controversial in many pockets of the country than Stoker Bruenig would assume. Subtle grooming of women to lower their academic and professional expectations so that they’re not let down or pulled away from home or family, the disdain with which men openly disregard the work women do at home—those beliefs are more prevalent than many would like to believe in 2015.

Sandberg is rich and privileged, and was lucky enough to be able to hire nannies and other domestic help. That is undoubtedly help that most American women do not have. But what has been our stereotype of women like Sandberg? In the common understanding, corporate women who do become successful in the career world and hire people to help raise their children are bad moms, the mean mommy with a briefcase stereotype, or worse, cold-fish types, emotionally barren and child-hating, a la the 1987 film Baby Boom. Sandberg wrote unapologetically about her own climb and her own success, humanizing the image of a corporate woman, and announced that she is both a good mother who works a lot and has a nanny. That’s helpful in chipping away at the stereotype.

Even if Sandberg’s advice isn’t useful to women other than those in her milieu, I’m not sure why that should be harmful to others. Some fear that if Sandberg encourages women to negotiate for things like paid maternity leave for themselves, it will take the air out of movements for universal reforms led by the government. That shouldn’t necessarily be true. Most college graduates and powerful people negotiate pay and benefits packages that are higher than the minimum wage, but that hasn’t dampened support for a minimum wage hike or universal paid-sick leave package. In fact, those reforms remain very popular.

Laws ensuring that all workers have such basic benefits are already sweeping the nation, and we haven’t arrived squarely in the 2016 campaign yet. Who knows where the women influenced by Sandberg will throw their political weight? There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t support candidates who will address the concerns they’ve been talking about in their Lean In circles. Indeed, the voices of female politicians addressing the needs of women have only gotten louder since Lean In came out.

Let’s say Sandberg’s sole goal is to raise the number of female CEO’s and achieve parity in boardrooms, and that she only wants to make the world better for those women. Why should we care? It’s not as though women in business are floating along on clouds of privilege with an easy life free of discrimination. Their privilege is relative, and just because other women have it worse than they do doesn’t erase the challenges they face. At worst, it makes Sandberg a very visible and imperfect vehicle for the mantle of feminism, but surely it is better to have as many of those as possible rather than too few.

Why do people find Sandberg’s advice so offensive? I think it’s because she’s speaking for herself, and encouraging other women to do the same. Women never speak solely on their own behalf. It violates an unspoken requirement that the first words we say must be, “Oh no, you go ahead,” and that women must help others first.

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It is possible to fight a battle on many fronts. Sure, leaning in won’t end gender discrimination on its own; a claim, I would point out, Sandberg never makes. Indeed, she says she supports those who address structural problems rather than individual ones, a conflict she rather simplistically describes in her introduction as a chicken-and-egg problem.“[R]ather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts,” she writes. “I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.”

And yet, mired in philosophical debates over the usefulness of Sandberg is where we’ve been.