March 12, 2013
Feminist Tough Love, Part One (Sheryl Sandberg)
Posted by Christine Hurt

If my friends' FB posts are any indication, last week was a week where women felt assailed at every turn.  First, it's still unclear whether Seth McFarlane is a sexist pig or an unsuccessful satirist (not a satyr, as I almost typed).  I didn't watch the Oscars, so I'll leave that debate to others.  However, I was more interested in two news stories last week that riled women for and against two of the most powerful corporate women in the country:  Sheryl Sandberg and Melissa Mayer.  This post will focus on Sandberg.

Sheryl Sandberg, has come under fire from certain feminist quarters for her saying, movement and book "Lean In."  If you don't recall (blog post here), Sandberg has given TED talks and commencement speeches urging women in the workplace to "lean in" -- i.e., believe in yourself, fully engage, take on as much responsibility as possible, and throw yourself into your work until you need to pull back because of family responsibilities.  Sandberg's conclusion from being in the workplace is that many women pull back way before they need to in anticipation of exiting, leaving themselves little options.  Sandberg's book hit the shelves yesterday, and seeks to be not just a book but a social movement, complete with Lean In "circles" to help women network, meet monthly, and learn from video lectures.  So, what's not to love about that? 

Sandberg's critics argue that she places no blame on employers, supervisors, or the government for either condoning sexism or not putting family-friendly policies in place.  To Sandberg, this is a multi-front war, and she is tackling "internal obstacles" not "external obstacles," which have traditionally been the target of feminists.  She is not saying that external obstacles do not exist, but is arguing that internal obstacles also exist and are the ones that individuals have the most power to overcome.  Sandberg is also an easy target for feminists concerned with the injustice of external obstacles because she is extremely successful and superwealthy.  As the NYT articles puts it, there is an "awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches, a 9,000 square foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder."  In other words, her words stick in the craw of "earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and childcare."  This argument is of course, an old one, in feminist history, in which some feminists accuse groups or movements ofbeing mostly about white women, or middle-class women, or professional women, etc. 

The NYT article linked to above names Anne-Marie Slaughter as Sandberg's "chief critic," suggesting that the two have created a "notable feminist row" following Slaughter's lengthy piece in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can't Have it All, which criticized Sandberg for laying workplace issues at the feet of working women instead of employers.  Slaughter reviews Lean In for the NYT Book Review (front page) this week, and the review seems glowing until the very end.  Slaughter compliments the author as a "feminist champion" and as "compassionate, funny, honest and likable" and suggests that Sandberg's exhortations to women seem nagging "taken out of context."  However, at the end of the review she concedes that Sandberg's focus on internal obstacles is "at best half a loaf."  Slaughter reminds us of the working women who, on their way to the top, face a "maternal wall" or "tipping point" where they can no longer balance caregiving and career, even with a full partner-spouse, belief in self and unlimited ambition.  For these women, Slaughter proposes we ask "how can business lean in?"

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