Sandberg’s book doesn’t claim that her approach will fix everything, but I’ve seen too many articles proclaiming, “Sandberg’s way is not the answer,” as if answers only come in single, easily-unwrapped packages.
We like easy answers. But just as a single-ingredient omelet is simple but bland, we’re missing something if we think there’s only one way to get women to the top of their organizations.
Criticisms of Lean In usually fall in one of three categories:
- Sandberg is rich. Therefore, she can’t relate to the rest of us, and her solutions can’t work for the lower and middle classes.
- By suggesting that women have room to improve, Sandberg is blaming women.
- Sandberg’s solution leaves too much out. The real problem is x, and until we implement x, women won’t advance, no matter what else they do.
- Sandberg is rich. So what?
There are a lot of worse things you could do with privilege. She’s not advocating killing small animals, encouraging young people to start smoking, or telling young women to starve themselves in order to please men. I’m glad she’s using her powers for good.
Privilege does not invalidate a person’s words any more than poverty does. Some say that her focus on leadership ignores the working poor, and while it’s true that most working-class people are not aiming for the C-Suite, it doesn’t mean her advice is useless to them. If a poor woman reads Sandberg’s words and finds something valuable in them, why should anyone’s class matter? When compared to the rest of the world, many of the critics are quite privileged themselves, and I doubt they’re hoping their audiences will ignore them based on the size of their bank account.
2. Suggesting improvement is not the same as blaming.
While Sandberg’s style doesn’t tongue-lash women for not being up to snuff, her performance review in print can cause discomfort. The observable differences between men’s and women’s behavior patterns in the workplace are disturbing. Aren’t we doing better than this?
Sandberg isn’t saying all of women’s problems are of their own making. She admits to falling into many of the same traps she advises women to avoid. There’s a reason women don’t advocate for themselves as much as men. Women feel a lot of pressure to conform to society’s ideal of femininity. Sandberg’s research demonstrates how women are disadvantaged and how their society teaches them to behave. When women “lean in” by showing their leadership skills, they pay a social price for doing so. She’s not saying, “You deserve what you get.” She’s saying, “There’s a reason you might be acting this way. Here’s one thing that might help.”
3. Just because a solution doesn’t solve everything doesn’t mean we should throw it out.
Sandberg doesn’t preach her ideas as a panacea to fix all of women’s woes. She is, however, giving women an attainable way to create change rather than focusing on forces outside their control. That would probably take another book. The external barriers, such as discrimination, a long work week, and a lack of flexibility, need to change, but Sandberg believes that if women reach the top levels of their organizations, they’ll be better equipped to help these changes happen.
Sandberg calls this tug-of-war between women’s internal and institutional barriers the “ultimate chicken-and-egg situation.” Some feminists, like Sandberg, argue that women need to be better advocates for themselves. Other women advocate in different ways. Since Sandberg believes both sides are right, she argues that “philosophical arguments over which comes first” are fruitless.
It’s ironic that her critics condemn her for focusing on women themselves. Whether the critics’ solution is workplace legislation, policy change, poverty eradication, or flexible workplaces, they believe “leaning in” won’t any good without removing the barriers.
This is exactly the kind of “chicken-and-egg” debate Sandberg is talking about. Many responses to her book offer other solutions (such as this article that suggests rethinking the time requirements of leadership positions and this article advocating paid family leave and paid sick leave). While I love the discussion her book is generating, and I’m excited that we have so many ideas to help the advancement of women, I don’t think we don’t need to demonize Sandberg to promote our own ideas. We need to talk about all the solutions instead of dismissing the ones that aren’t the same as our own.
- Do women need to speak up more?
- Could we use sick leave laws like Connecticut’s elsewhere in the nation?
- Do men need to do their share of housework and child care?
- Could flexible workplaces help to advance the careers of women?
- Can we encourage young women to develop leadership skills?
- Can workplaces stop assuming that sixty-hour workweeks are a necessary path to leadership?
- Could we do more to stop discrimination against women, and especially against mothers?
There isn’t a single solution here. If there were just one solution, we could apply it tomorrow. But when one person proposes a solution, we’re so eager to promote our own solutions that we stomp all over the other person’s ideas. Why can’t we embrace all the solutions and try them all? Instead of running from the complexity, let’s embrace it.
To make a good omelet, we need chickens and eggs. And milk and pepper and cheese and onions. We don’t need a bunch of cooks arguing about chickens while the eggs burn.