Sheryl Sandberg’s Can-Do Feminism

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Sheryl Sandberg at a luncheon for the American Society of News Editors in San Diego in 2011

In 1956, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School, her class of more than 500 students included nine women and one black man. Erwin Griswold, the school’s dean, summoned the nine women and asked each to answer a question: How could she justify taking a place that would otherwise have gone to a man?

Griswold would later insist he’d just been playing devil’s advocate. Ginsburg, who still tells this story with a tinge of resentment, emerged from the meeting determined to prove him wrong. A half-century later, Angie Kim, Harvard Law School class of ’93, surveyed 226 women in her class. A decade and a half after graduating, almost one-third of the women described themselves as stay-at-home mothers, which they indicated was a temporary status; nearly another third had arranged “mommy track” part-time or flexible work. With numbers like these among women with every privilege, did Griswold have a point? 

When Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg was at Harvard College in the late 1980s, she admits in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she didn’t call herself a feminist, nor did any of her friends, because “we mistakenly thought there was nothing left to fight for.” At school and in the workforce, Sandberg writes, “I believed it was just a matter of time until my generation took our fair share of the leadership roles.” She went on to Harvard Business School, which in Ginsburg’s day had admitted no women at all, and where women are still only 40 percent of the students. Fiercely determined, she moved up the ranks at the Treasury Department and then at Google and Facebook. 

“But with each passing year, fewer and fewer of my colleagues were women,” Sandberg writes. “More and more often, I was the only woman in the room.” She adds, “We have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry.” In her new book, Sandberg urges women to “lean in,” or be more assertive on behalf of their careers, and she gives some advice on how to do it. Women who want children, she says, should not be daunted into preemptively withdrawing from their ambitions. They should take a seat at the table, literally and figuratively. They should stop hiding their accomplishments and start demanding more from their workplaces and their partners. They should acknowledge sexism is out there but not let it thwart them. 

Sandberg believes bleak “having it all” conversations have discouraged young women, as has “choose my choice” feminism (though she doesn’t use this phrase), which calls any option feminist if a woman takes it. “We have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership,” she writes. Just as crucially, she wants men to step up and be full professional and personal partners in parity. (Ginsburg’s husband was famously this kind of better half.) 

For these rather modest proposals, Sandberg has been accused in the media of wanting women to “pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps” (USA Today) and being “the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of [her] bottom line” (The Washington Post); some feminists and progressives have critiqued her earlier pronouncements for not focusing enough on policy or structural discrimination, for mistaking personal branding for a social movement, and for failing to meaningfully address concerns of working-class women like the domestic workers she and her husband employ. Sandberg agrees, in fact, that it’s necessary to push for provisions, from paid family leave to affordable daycare, that would improve women’s participation. But countries far more advanced on the policy front than the United States haven’t done much better in female representation at the top. Something else is happening, and Sandberg—who now proudly identifies as a feminist—has some ideas based on personal experience and her reading of the research. 

As Sandberg concedes, her prescriptions are most relevant to privileged women with “choices”—she is already famous (or infamous) for saying she leaves work at 5:30 to be with her family—and, I would add, to women who share her unapologetic, almost retro love of career. Her book isn’t only for them, or should I say us. Practical tips on how to advocate for yourself while threading the needle of sexism can help those for whom work is by necessity work, not vocation. Though her notion of leadership as the apex of a woman’s career is fairly conventional, this is a more enthusiastically feminist book than your average executive how-to, and it marshals more optimism and real-world power—what Sandberg delicately refers to as her “front row seat”—than earlier exhortations to get to work and stay there.

As a result, this will never be a book for people who believe that the personal accrual and deployment of power is inherently oppositional to feminism or a prize won at the expense of other women. Sandberg rejects marginalization as a symbolic virtue. She demands a more perfect meritocracy, and she has set out to make one. 


Before Sandberg started speaking out about gender roles, she was best known for helping to turn ascendant Internet companies into grown-up businesses that make money, starting with Google and then Facebook, and for being mentored by former Treasury Secretary and Harvard University President Larry Summers. Summers advised Sandberg’s undergraduate thesis on the economic dynamics of spousal abuse and hired her at the World Bank and at Treasury, where she rose to become his chief of staff. She managed to work productively with Summers and later with another man of celebrated intellectual capacities and notoriously terrible interpersonal skills, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Both appear often, and uncontroversially, in Lean In.) The spheres these men came from and came to lead were also Sandberg’s, and understanding their milieu helps us see the limits of her vision—but also how far out on a limb she has already ventured.   

Sandberg has exceptional interpersonal skills, as I learned firsthand attending a dinner she held in New York in November and one of her monthly “women’s dinners” at her house in Atherton, California, in January. She had not come to lecture, she made it clear; she had come to learn, and in California, to share some of her leverage with a more diverse pool of people than I’d seen anywhere else in the tech world. In person and in the book, she exemplifies traditionally feminine virtues: assiduous credit-giving, cheerful self-effacement (which she says she is trying to get over!). For every critic who has demanded to know who Sandberg thinks she is bossing women around, you get the sense she’s probably already sorry. 

In 2008, these skills were called upon in the service of Summers, who had joined Obama’s economic team but carried baggage with women’s groups. As president of Harvard three years earlier, Summers had given a clumsy talk before female scientists citing research on women’s quantitative aptitude, which some of them took to mean he believed women are underrepresented in their fields for biological reasons. What Summers actually said is contested. But even if this was a case, as he later explained, of a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses,” his musing aloud betrayed its own ideologies. First, his attendance at the church of empiricism, with its belief that research has no bias; second, the apparent surprise that extemporaneously mansplaining biological differences to a bunch of female scientists would cause him any trouble. To be sure, it would take many bull-in-a-china-shop moments to topple Summers’s presidency. (A woman, Drew Gilpin Faust, succeeded him.) Sandberg defended Summers, arguing that while he had perhaps “communicated poorly—and even insensitively,” he had a track record of advocating policies benefiting women and had been “a supportive and deeply caring mentor for me and many other women.” In Lean In’s chapter on mentoring, she talks about how it is not a one-sided transaction; the mentee also gives back, and Sandberg did.

For all of Sandberg’s social fluidity, she is taking a risk with Lean In. As she writes in the book, “Within traditional institutions, success has often been contingent upon a woman not speaking out but fitting in.” Calling out sexism counts as not fitting in. At Treasury, Sandberg “worried that pointing out the disadvantages women face in the workforce might be misinterpreted as whining or asking for special treatment.” That worry would have been rational. After the Democrats lost the 2000 election and she moved west to seek her fortune, Sandberg joined a social order even more invested in believing it had transcended all structural barriers to success, despite its blinding homogeneity.

That would be Silicon Valley, with its driving creed of purported meritocracy. “Success in Silicon Valley, most would agree, is more merit driven than almost any other place in the world. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are. If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really, stinking rich,” wrote TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington in a 2010 post titled, “Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Blaming The Men.” (Notably, the two concepts on either side of Arrington’s slash—changing the world, getting rich—are not seen as opposed in a world shaped by Google and Facebook, even as the companies have grown and are under greater pressure to maximize profits, and as the ways in which they’re changing the world are no longer so politically neutral.) Sandberg could herself be held up as proof, but she is one of the few. If meritocracy is the local religion, Sandberg is the reformation, if not wholly a heretic.

The unshakeable belief in the power of technology—and technologists—to transcend social and political divisions is fundamental in Sandberg’s current world. A powerful insider calling out the limits of that credo from within is what makes her project so unusual, and so potent. Recognizing, perhaps, that a woman will never quite “fit in,” she has given up trying so hard and run with this feminist stuff anyway. “My own attempts to point out gender bias have generated more than my fair share of eye rolling from others,” she writes. But having “leaned in” and conquered, she can’t be accused of being an embittered outsider. That makes Sandberg a “surprising validator,” to borrow legal scholar Cass Sunstein’s term for a person best situated to change others’ minds. 


In college, Sandberg attended a Phi Beta Kappa speech by the feminist Peggy McIntosh on “Feeling Like a Fraud,” which led Sandberg to realize that even in her success she’d always felt like an impostor. Men and women who had achieved this same academic honor attended separate ceremonies—a lingering legacy of Harvard and Radcliffe’s gender segregation—so Sandberg excitedly filled in a male friend at a reception afterward. “Why would that be interesting?” he asked, confused. Sandberg and her best friend joked that the men’s talk had been “How to Cope in a World Where Not Everyone Is as Smart as You.” 

In other words, Sandberg writes in agreement with a point feminists have long argued, men are encouraged to feel a sense of entitlement from an early age. On the other hand, she has observed on the job that women suffer too often from “tiara syndrome”—the bad habit of expecting someone will notice your achievements and place a tiara on your head. (It’s a mentality that usually works better in school, which may be why women do so well there.) “Do not wait for power to be offered,” Sandberg writes. “Like that tiara, it might never materialize.” Sandberg is also on feminist terrain when she says women are being partly held back by fear: “[F]ear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: The fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” Even as she owns up to feeling such fear, she counsels working around it. In negotiation, for example, “a woman needs to combine niceness with insistence.” 

This is meeting the world as it is, not as one would like it. But Sandberg also thinks women should demand more, especially from men, and especially from men who are their partners. In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s widely discussed Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Slaughter thanked her husband for support but seemed to assume the woman in a heterosexual marriage will always do more of the unpaid labor at home and probably always feel more love for her children, fueling the painful pull of competing duties and loyalties. By contrast, Sandberg urges women to demand more and to “make your partner a real partner.” That means seeking out a partner who is supportive of one’s career goals and who picks up half of the work at home, even if, as a result, women must cede some control of household duties and childrearing. 

Because she is so focused on power sharing between men and women, particularly when it comes to raising children, Sandberg has been criticized for leaving out anyone who isn’t heterosexual. But notably left out of her equation are all women who lack a partner—especially women raising kids on their own. When Sandberg writes, “I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career,” she is uncritically describing a socioeconomic reality in which stable partnership has become both a luxury good and a technique for doubling down on advantage. 

Marriage has worked for Sandberg (the second time around, after an early divorce). So have institutions, from Harvard to government to technology corporations, even when she has found them deficient. Indeed, Sandberg is at her most wrongheaded when she puts too much faith in such institutions’ benevolent interests in helping their employees. At one point, she encourages the frank discussion of possible future pregnancies in job interviews, even as she recognizes that it would brush up against the law. The reason such conversations are regulated by anti-discrimination law is that employers do, in fact, discriminate against pregnant employees. Some bosses may, like Sandberg, be happy to work around such plans in order to get the best talent. But laws are intended to protect employees from the worst bosses. 

Sandberg believes that the citadels of power will improve when more women are the boss and institutions will improve when they become true meritocracies. In this, she hasn’t strayed too far from her mentor’s remedy for inequality. Summers’s most shining legacy at Harvard was vastly expanding financial aid, calling income inequality “the most serious domestic problem in the United States today” and education “the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem.” The attendant assumption is that if the children of maids and janitors can become investment bankers too, the whole system would be both fairer (unquestionably true) and better for everyone (a matter for serious debate).  

Making the system fairer—giving a greater range of people potential access to its benefits—is nevertheless a decent goal in itself and a starting point for something more, which is why it matters whether a privileged woman is among privileged men in executive corridors at Davos or TED or the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium or the G8 Summit. We should care about why women aren’t there just as we care about why women almost never win the Oscar for Best Director—an elite subcategory, to be sure—and why we celebrate when 20 women join the flawed institution that is the Senate. 

Female leadership has barely been tried out, let alone normalized, nor has self-made female wealth. Sandberg is—of course—optimistic: “The more women attain positions of power, the less pressure there will be to conform, and the more they will do for other women.” This approach gives collective justification to the book’s exhortations for individual women to rise—to ask for more money, to choose jobs for their growth potential, to communicate directly and unapologetically. This doesn’t mean there would be no collective benefit. (Sandberg kicks her book off with a small example: No one at Google thought to have special parking for pregnant women until she, a rare female executive, needed it.) Meritocracy, with its investment in individual achievement before broad social change, has split the difference with social movements and the old hierarchical ways. It is still a vast improvement on those older ways. 

Arguing that gender inequality matters is radical in Sandberg’s own context, but she could go further still. Then again, she is someone who has already listened to critics who found her structural analysis lacking. Two years ago, she was described in a New Yorker profile as not believing there is a “glass ceiling.” Now she is staking her career on talking about breakdowns in the system. Who knows? The current wave of critics might be more effective if they saw her less as a natural enemy and more as a potential convert. 

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)