Don’t Skewer Sandberg for Not Solving All Women’s Issues

During the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, Sheryl Sandberg worked as a page for her Florida congressman, William Lehman. On the last day of the session, Lehman introduced her to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

“I was nervous,” she writes in her new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead,” but Lehman put her at ease with a complimentary introduction praising her hard work. O’Neill, who died in 1994, patted Sandberg on the head.

“She’s pretty,” he said to Lehman.

Then, turning to the woman who today is chief operating officer of Facebook, the speaker of the House asked, “Are you a pom-pom girl?”

Sandberg, who ranks 10th on the Forbes list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” isn’t fielding questions these days about whether she ever made the cheerleading team.

She is, however, taking a beating among many commentators for the things “Lean In” doesn’t do: It doesn’t solve all the problems of women who lack Sandberg’s resources and connections. It doesn’t propose a way to enact child-care solutions at the government level. It doesn’t map out a strategy to fight gender discrimination in corporations.

Don’t Leave

These observations are true, but they don’t negate Sandberg’s constructive ideas. In the frustratingly slow march toward gender equality, “Lean In” proposes workarounds to help professional women survive.

Sandberg insists that if you’re a woman in the workplace, you mustn’t “leave before you leave.” Sometimes in anticipation of a pregnancy that could be years off, women begin to forgo opportunities. “We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet,” she writes.

The author has made risky moves to keep colleagues from making those compromises. She recalls asking a Facebook employee to manage a new project, but picking up vibes that the woman was reluctant to assume more responsibility.

“Are you worried about taking this on because you’re considering having a child sometime soon?” she asked. It was a move that “would give most employment lawyers a heart attack,” Sandberg writes. She’s got that right.

Marathon Training

Sandberg illustrates the problem by likening careers to a marathon in which men and women arrive at the starting line “equally fit and trained.” As the race begins, men are cheered with shouts of “Lookin’ strong” even as women are told “Good start -- but you probably won’t want to finish.”

As women struggle toward the finish line, “the voices can even grow hostile,” she writes. “Spectators shout, ‘Why are you running when your children need you at home?’”

Throughout this well-written book, Sandberg draws from research examining everything from pay inequality to biases that trip women up.

Particularly reflective of how things work in the real world is a Columbia Business School experiment where students were asked to read a case study about an entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen who became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality” and “vast personal and professional network.”

Half the students read the case study with Roizen’s real name. The other half read a doctored version where Heidi was changed to “Howard.”

Great Guy

The verdict: Heidi was selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” And Howard? Now that was someone they’d like to have as a colleague. What a guy.

Sandberg hopes to inspire a movement. If she succeeds, that’s terrific, but history is not on her side.

People with a lock on power share their clout only when they’re forced to. Pass legislation demanding gender quotas and women get picked for corporate board seats, as happened in Norway. File a class action lawsuit that exposes sexist remarks and pay inequity, and women start getting good jobs they were qualified for all along, as happened at Newsweek in the 1970s and Smith Barney in the ’90s.

Sandberg pushes a less militant approach. She’d like to see more emphasis on success stories so that women are inspired not to give up. She even advises that women smile a lot to get ahead at the office.

Sandberg doesn’t cover all the important issues, but she doesn’t deserve to be skewered, either. Women are too far behind to indulge in the luxury of dismissing an advocate because she hasn’t come up with a global solution. Working women need all the help they can get.

“Lean In” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and W.H. Allen in the U.K. (228 pages, $24.95, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Susan Antilla is a columnist for Bloomberg View and the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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