Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)
It might be when she talks about sauntering up to her Google bosses and demanding a better parking space that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women starts to rankle. Or perhaps it’s the anecdote about finding nits in her children’s scalp en route to a business meeting – while on eBay’s private jet – that makes your blood boil, just a little. Or the way that each interview she’s done has been full of diversions – about being a geek, breaking down at work, or being terrible at walking in high heels – that are clearly designed to prove how much of an everywoman she is but instead come across as characteristics of the modern feminist icon that her publicist has selected straight from central casting. Here she is: Silicon Valley superwoman, Facebook’s second-most recognisable face, well-coiffed with the perfect family to boot, plus a litany of career successes under her belt – and all before her 45th birthday. And she’s telling all the other women out there that it’s easy to be just like her; they’ve merely got to be more assertive.
Sandberg discussing her book Lean In…
To be fair to Sandberg, that’s a slightly narrow interpretation of her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which is being marketed as something of a manifesto for the 20th century career woman. In the extracts and interviews with her I’ve read so far (of which there have been several – her marketing team needs a rise), her advice follows a familiar thread. Women, she explains, need to be less afraid of success and learn to appreciate achievement as the other half do.
Shesays: “Women internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives-the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men-and pull back when we should lean in.” Sandberg isn’t wrong, and her advice is far more tolerable and constructive than that of women who have broken through the glass ceiling and can’t see why everyone else is making such a fuss about it. She’s absolutely spot on when she talks about the phenomenon of women feeling like “frauds” when they are successful, rather than simply soaking up praise for a job well done. Her suggestion that women hold themselves back rings true; in my own experience, it’s noticeable how male writers are usually willing to pitch opinion pieces out of the blue, while female writers seem surprised that they might be able to float an idea. They wait to be asked, a trend that Sandberg acknowledges, in a way that men simply don’t.
Of the women I know – intelligent, capable and qualified twenty-somethings with bright careers ahead – many speak of the very concerns Sandberg raises. They confess to feeling inadequate, as if they were imposters in their roles, to believing that they need to better than the best just to keep up with their (mostly male) colleagues. Most assume that the myth of “having it all,” sold to us during our school years, is just that, that something, somewhere, will have to give.
The problem isn’t that her advice is unwelcome, unreasonable, or even that she’s stating the obvious. It’s that, ultimately, it’s meaningless. Sandberg is correct that pregnant women should get better parking spaces; that we should be demanding equal pay, and the appreciation men in the workplace take as their birthright. But it’s hardly a revelation – we’ve known for years that we should be heeding these feminist rallying cries. The problem is that we don’t. We haven’t yet, and it’s unlikely enough of us will.
This week Sandberg – former chief of staff to a US treasury secretary – told The Times: “really, honestly, I’m not going into politics.” Perhaps she’s just fooling us, or even herself. Let’s hope so. For if more women like Sandberg – the ones that have “leaned in to overcome their fears and sit at the table – were in politics, maybe some of what she is urging would take effect. If Sandberg could secure that parking space with minimal heartache, just imagine what she could do as a politician if she took on businesses over maternity rights or flexible working. Surely in the fight for more affordable childcare, someone like Sandberg should be leading the charge?
Ultimately, as she admits “the blunt truth is that men still run the world”. No amount of well-meaning advice is going to change the fact that this is, for many, a reality. Books and words advocating equality are great. But they would be far more valuable if she turned them into action.
This post originally appeared on Running in Heels.