Having it all

The Lean In backlash: Why do so many women hate Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg's message?

Why do women hate Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In message?

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, Facebook COO, book
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg Amazon.com
Sheryl Sandberg, CEO, Facebook
Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg Photo by Sit With Me/Flickr
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, Facebook COO, book
Sheryl Sandberg, CEO, Facebook

It’s happening again. Another successful woman executive is skewered (mostly by other women) for having the gall to try to have it all.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is causing quite a stir in the print and online media. As I read the many articles and blog posts commenting on a book that most authors have not actually read, I can’t help but wonder why there is such a backlash against this woman.

 Why can’t a wealthy, successful, working woman with a nanny and a 7,000 square foot home have something of value to offer other working women?  

Why can’t a wealthy, successful, working woman with a nanny and a 7,000 square foot home have something of value to offer other working women?

Here’s the approach I took as I tried to sort through the vicious commentary. Maybe this approach will help you, also, as you’ll be hearing and seeing even more press with the official launch of Sandberg’s Lean In.

Is her message relevant?

Sandberg appears to be trying to address a persistent problem that just doesn’t seem to go away, that women are not in as many leadership positions as they should be. As of the end of 2012, there were 21 women CEOs in the Fortune 500; that’s 4.2 percent, up from 16 (3.2 percent) at the end of 2011. Gains are being made, though not at an impressive rate. 

Assuming a proactive stance

While women may still have a long way to go for equity, what impresses me is that Sandberg isn’t pointing the finger at men or at society in general and simply demanding the universe to “make it right,” but instead offers suggestions on how to overcome the inequities despite the challenge.

Amazon’s book description reads, “In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.”

OK, tell me more.

Coming from a place of knowledge

Sandberg wasn’t born the COO of Facebook. She had to work her way up a ladder, which I suspect entailed many long days and late nights at the office.

 Perhaps if Sandberg were lunching with the ladies each day instead of leading a Fortune 500 organization in a competitive business climate, I would discount her words. 

So while her current situation might seem a bit out of touch with the daily realities of most working women (“I am fully aware that most women are not focused on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day,” she writes), and these days she leaves the office at 5:30, one might assume that lessons learned as her career progressed have some relevance to those trying to figure out how best to pursue successful, demanding careers while still having a life outside the office.

Take the café approach: Take what you want and leave the rest

Sandberg has some good suggestions in her book that sound like lessons learned rather than idealist motivational speaker hoopla (from “Career tips from Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’” in Businessweek/AP):

  • Sit at the table. Raise your hand. Men do.
  • When negotiating, “Think personally, act communally.” Use “we” instead of “I.”
  • Don’t sacrifice being liked for being successful. A lesson learned from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Take risks. Step up. Look for stretch assignments. Even when you aren’t sure you’re ready.
  • Make your partner a real partner. I.e., men are parents, too.

Assume sincerity

Sandberg didn’t write the book for the money. Her income far surpasses whatever proceeds might come from publishing the book.

And taken in context with her other social ventures – starting a women’s professional support group at Google and the launch last week of the “Lean In” organization, “a global community committed to offering women the encouragement and support to lean in to their ambitions” – it would appear that she simply wants to offer advice.

While it remains to be seen whether the Lean In organization is a success, Sandberg has at least created a potential revenue support stream as all book proceeds go to the organization.

Read first, attack later

As the New Yorker article suggested, “Maybe you should read the book: The Sheryl Sandberg backlash." Enough said.

Perhaps if Sandberg were lunching with the ladies each day instead of leading a Fortune 500 organization in a competitive business climate, I would discount her words. But I know she lives with the daily stresses of being an executive and making difficult, bet the company decisions every day. No one gets to the top or stays at the top without being willing to do so.

But you know, game changers are always controversial. Hopefully Sandberg can take the heat. And, hopefully, she can help change the game.

Full disclosure: I didn’t qualify for an advance copy of Lean In but mine should arrive by March 14.

Amanda Brady is director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston.