No good deed goes unpunished is a lesson that Sheryl Sandberg has learned over the last few weeks leading up to the release on Monday of her self-proclaimed feminist manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In remarkable waves, media commentators raked the Facebook COO over the coals for being a woman of financial privilege and for suggesting that women should tackle their professional lives more courageously. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd bitingly referred to her the “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots. Then the anti-Sandberg pendulum swung in the opposite direction, with the likes of Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO and co-chief investment officer of PIMCO, calling the book recommended reading for CEOs.
Of course, the brouhaha over Sheryl Sandberg really has nothing to do with her book. It comes down to her desire to launch a new feminist revolution. Yet, only once the chattering masses stops focusing on her millions in stock from Facebook and Google, and her dual Harvard degrees will we be able to see if this revolution has legs. Can Ms. Sandberg make the F-word, feminism, sound less dirty? For the sake of all women in business, I hope so.
In an effort to come clean, I’ve not always agreed with Ms. Sandberg. I never accepted that there exists an ambition gap and most women I know “lean in” to their careers with gusto. Nor do I believe that women necessarily prioritize marriage over careers. In fact, many choose the latter by choice or necessity.
Yet, Ms. Sandberg does not only place the onus on women’s advancement on women alone. In her book, she touches on the subconscious biases that do permeate the workplace and illustrates the obstacles created by socializing girls to be supporters rather than leaders. These issues create real barriers to women’s advancement and it’s shortsighted to shoot down the first woman with a significant platform and position of power that wants to remedy these social ills to not only empower women, but also help businesses succeed.
At the core of this revolution lives a site that many gloss over in this conversation, Leanin.org. The nonprofit organization offers educational information, stories by women – and some men – of their career experiences as well as the opportunity to participate in “Lean-in circles” of small groups that meet monthly.
Success, according to Gina Bianchini, co-founder of Leanin.org, “is more women believing that they can achieve any goal – and then achieving it.” Ms. Bianchini, who is also the CEO and co-founder of MightyBell, the platform that powers Leanin.org says the organization wants to help women realize their dream and help men support women in the home and workplace. “Our ultimate goal is a world where what people do with their lives is no longer determined by gender, but instead determined by their passions and interests,” she added.
It’s a lofty – and appealing – message but can Leanin.org pull this off through small group conversations? Ultimately, real benefits for Leanin.org and women’s advancement will only be reaped when more men buy into this agenda. While Ms. Sandberg adoringly references the domestic skills of her husband, Dave Goldberg, I no longer buy the logic that equality will arrive when men change more diapers.
”Women are tired of putting the challenge of women’s leadership on only women, without bringing men into the equation,” said Carolyn Lawrence, president and CEO of Women of Influence Inc., a Toronto-based group dedicated to the advancement of professional women. “Women don’t want it to be a “women’s issue”, they want it to be a “people’s issue,” she added.
Some of the backlash to Ms. Sandberg`s movement can be attributed to `battle fatigue’ says Ms. Lawrence, who rightly points out the irony that her gender plays a role in fostering this reaction. “Here’s a woman who’s made millions of dollars who’s decided to use those funds to inspire women to take action in their career advancement,” observed Ms. Lawrence. “We don’t attack Bill Gates, for example, for wanting to start a foundation and put his money towards something he believes in solving.”
“I don’t know any other woman who’s made as big of a commitment as her,” she added.
Ms. Lawrence is right – Sandberg’s message might not dramatically change the business landscape but it’s a good start. Business feminism is ripe for rebranding and few want to champion the cause. Take for example, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who publicly stated that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, since she doesn’t have the “militant drive” or “chip on the shoulder” that sometimes accompanies that term. Ouch.
Multiple generations of women have graduated from college only to discover their professional accomplishments lag behind their male counterparts a decade into their career. If we want to see change, we need to give the billionaire revolutionary a chance to really change the ratio because her prescription is not only good for women, it`s good for business.