Do Millennial Women Need Sheryl Sandberg?

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You might have heard some people talking about women recently. Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," part manifesto, part female empowerment movement, will be published next week. And Sandberg couldn't have hired a better press agent than Marissa Mayer, whose Yahoo! Inc. employees were told two weeks ago to get out of their pajamas and come to the office.

Women who opine about their experiences in the workforce often include a series of disclaimers. I'm rich, they say. I'm powerful and well-educated. I have 13 nannies, four houses and a bionic husband. These qualifications highlight the contradiction underlying all this talk: The women whose voices attract attention do not represent the wide swaths of society they hope to help. Those women are too busy getting jobs in the first place or caring for kids as single mothers to write books and articles. They must rely on the imperfect voices of the rich and powerful lest they have no voices at all.

Here are my disclaimers: I had a privileged upbringing. I had the best education that money, and a good deal of hard work, could acquire. I'm 22 years old. I have a job, but no husband, no children and scant real-world experience.

So, I'm simultaneously unqualified to weigh in on this debate and hyperqualified. These women on high are detailing their struggles in large part so that women my age can benefit from their words as we begin our climbs. I'm grateful for it, because it has forced me to think about our future as female millennials. And one, perhaps unwelcome, conclusion I've come to is that we might be getting a little too distracted by this whole discussion.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 24, 2013. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The drama is overplayed. Sandberg is being pitted against Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, who wrote the "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" piece for the Atlantic this past summer and has her own book on the way. Sandberg wants women to lean into their careers and not to "leave before you leave." Slaughter thinks that we're loading too much of the blame on women; we need to alter institutional, political and social norms to better accommodate and appreciate working mothers. She writes that: "Women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips)." Mayer presents a plot twist: She's a powerful, young woman with a newborn who doesn't want to be a feminist even though everyone keeps dragging her into the debate.

In reality, and as some have noticed, Sandberg and Slaughter are both probably right. In certain instances and office cultures, women need cheerleaders telling them to lean in. In others, they need society to lean in to give them that next boost. Our paths might include both zooms upward and sets of irregular stairs.

Mayer has every right for her decisions as an executive to be judged on their merits and not according to where she has built her baby nursery. Slaughter has written as much in Mayer's defense. Slaughter is also participating in Sandberg's "Lean In" campaign. The only thing dramatic about this trio is the power their perspectives can wield together.

As they wield it, the best thing we young women can do is to stop expending quite so much mental energy worrying about the balancing act we will one day face or the incline of our ascents (a point of Sandberg's that all the hubbub over the book has undermined) and get to work on making it to base camp.

Here we run into another problem: We're being impeded by factors much greater than our sex. As a recent New York Times piece notes, it's hard to break into a satisfying career when many people -- especially those more creatively than corporately inclined -- can't make a living (much less pay off student debt) in entry-level spots. We can't close the ambition gap without places to cultivate our ambition. And thanks to our ever-buzzing mobile devices, work-life balance, even without kids, has been eclipsed by a 24/7 office. When you've spent your 20s being overworked and underpaid, leaning back starts to sound kind of cozy.

And then we consider that three young women are graduating college for every two young men. As of this past summer, the unemployment rate for young women was 1.7 percentage points lower than for young men. In most big U.S. cities, single women in their 20s who don't have kids are earning more than their male counterparts. Sandberg and Slaughter would be quick to point out that women began graduating at equal rates in the early 1980s, long enough ago that they should have already risen to top positions in equal numbers. But things aren't even equal any more: They're skewing toward women. Raising our levels of confidence and public awareness can help shatter the "glass ceiling." But the brute force of pushing against that ceiling in greater numbers is also going to help.

Therefore, my generation of women just might be the first that will face greater barriers by dint of being part of a particular generation than by being women. Our era -- post financial collapse -- is a bigger roadblock for most of us than our chromosomes.

Where does that leave Sandberg and Slaughter's work? Are their words already obsolete? No. Society will still be better off with more confident, self-assured women and more workplaces that openly acknowledge the various balancing acts employees face. Even if Sandberg's dream -- that "the world would be a better place if half our companies and half our countries were run by women and half our homes were run by men" -- comes true, kids still aren't going to drive themselves to nursery school and the days won't have more than 24 hours.

If anything, these realities suggest that there's another group who should be tuning in to all this talk: young men. As women become more breadwinners and men do more of the dishes, men too will benefit from workplace flexibility (and female ambition). But they too will need to speak up. Empowering women must not come at the cost of shoving men to the sidelines.

Here's one final disclaimer, if I may: In the welcome video on the Lean In website, Sandberg explains that she "entered the workforce believing that my generation was going to have equal responsibility and equal opportunity. And it didn't work out that way." I can only hope that I am not making the same mistake.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Zara Kessler at