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The Lean In Controversy: Will It Spark Round Two in The Workplace Wars?

The furor over Sheryl Sandberg’s book has featured some of the highest-profile commentators in America. We break down the arguments.

It comes out today, the book everyone’s talking about - Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will to Lead. But the controversy started weeks ago, before even review copies were available. Critics have rejected the Facebook COO’s views as elitist and egocentric and feared she would unravel the very fabric of feminism. And yet all Sandberg’s trying to do is “encourage women to dream big … and achieve their full potential.”

Taking any stand about women and work now seems tantamount to wearing a “kick me” sign. And there’s no more conspicuous target than a 43-year-old billionaire-to-be and married mother of two who sits at number ten on the Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women. The backlash (and even the backlash to the backlash) started back when Sandberg previewed her perspective in a 2010 TED talk. She said that women sell themselves short; successful women need involved partners at home; and women turn down good opportunities because they worry too much about work-life imbalance. In Lean In, Sandberg builds on this foundation. She advises women to metaphorically keep their hand up, ask for promotions and find confidence by “faking it till you feel it.” If we “think personally, act communally,” she writes, women can reach for the same rewards as men without appearing political or pushy.

So far, the battle is being waged by bold-faced names such as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the wildly controversial "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" for The Atlantic, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Slaughter says Sandberg is blaming women for opting out instead of faulting unrealistic workplace demands, while Dowd is accusing the Facebook COO of hijacking feminism for her own personal gain. Others charge that Sandberg has focused only on women of privilege, ignoring those struggling to provide for their families.

And we’ve only just begun. Sandberg’s plan to level the playing field goes way beyond the book. On March 6, she launched leanin.org, a website loaded with videos taught by experts on topics like negotiations and team building. Intended to foster a global community, the nonprofit organization encourages women to form supportive “Lean In circles.”

Lean In may not be a panacea for everything that ails women. But if Sandberg’s got the energy to spark a revolution, what’s the harm in letting her try? Stay tuned, as round one – fought by pundits and policy advocates – is followed by round two – readers in the ring.

We’ve isolated five prongs of Sandberg’s vision that have drawn particular ire. Let us know what you think.

1
Women are less ambitious than men.

 

Sandberg lays out research describing a “leadership ambition gap”: women are less interested in C-suite jobs than men and cultural stereotypes discourage them from aggressively pursuing success.

Critics like Anne-Marie Slaughter say this unfairly blames women, rather than workplace bias. “Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach,” Slaughter says. “We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

However, Gloria Feldt - activist and author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power and co-founder of Take The Lead, an initiative for women’s leadership parity by 2025 - says Slaughter “has it all wrong.” Though she uses different terms, Feldt supports Sandberg’s conclusion.

“I believe women have plenty of ambition but what we lack is intention,” Feldt says. “We don’t seek power for its own sake as avidly as men are inclined to do. … Women are still socialized to consider the feelings of others before our own ambitions. That causes us to hesitate before acting and she who hesitates is likely to miss out on the promotion, the opportunity, the pay raise.”

2
For women to succeed, men need to take more responsibility at home.

 

Sandberg cites Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober’s Getting to 50/50 as evidence that sharing financial and child-care responsibilities leads to “less guilty moms, more involved dads, and thriving children.”

The focus on fifty-fifty partnerships from someone who has the money to hire a platoon of help raised plenty of hackles.

But Sarah Jane Glynn, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, says the fact that a nanny helps raise Sandberg’s children doesn’t diminish her argument. “Encouraging greater parental involvement among men is hardly an elitist position,” Glynn says. “Fathers today… still do less than mothers… Part of the reason why women earn less than men - and why mothers earn less than women without children - is because mothers are more likely than fathers to take time out of the workforce to care for a child.”

3
Women should “lean in” instead of prematurely putting the brakes on career options.

 

She imagines a marathon where equally fit and trained men and women start side by side. “The male marathoners are routinely cheered on: ‘Lookin’ strong! On your way!’ But the female runners hear … ‘Good start—but you probably won’t want to finish. … ‘Why are you running when your children need you at home?’”

Finding a way to stay in the race can result in a job worth juggling, Sandberg argues, but some women slow down in anticipation of children before they even have a serious boyfriend. She acknowledges that, “Not all women want careers. Not all women want children. Not all women want both,” but her call to “lean in” still puts her smack in the middle of the internecine “mommy wars.”

Caitlin Flanagan, author of Girl Land and To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, writing for Time Magazine, says Lean In is “inherently dismissive … about the ultimate value of the deeply human and irreplaceable experience of raising one’s children. Here is the inescapable truth: To ‘lean in’ to one thing is to ‘lean away’ from something else. If there remain some businesswomen who choose to put their children over their careers – who would rather work at a diminished job because they find in child rearing something more valuable and significant than, say, investment banking – we might not be witnesses to a national tragedy.”

4
“Once women are in power, they will help one another.”

 

Sandberg recognizes there’s a “chicken-and-egg” argument: “The chicken: Women will tear down the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. …The egg: We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those roles in the first place. Both sides are right.” But she focuses on the “chicken.”

Melissa Gira Grant, in the Washington Post, says Sandberg’s solutions are “isolated to actions individual women can take to support their own ambitions and desires, rather than wondering about the ambitions and desires of, say, the women who keep house for the women spending their time ‘leaning in.’ There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women.”

5
“I should urge more women to believe in themselves and aspire to lead.”

 

It’s the “I” that got the author in trouble. Maureen Dowd references critics calling Sandberg elitist and accuses the author of “[co-opting] the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”

Sandberg, while mostly self-deprecating and game to reveal her own insecurities in the book, doesn’t help charges of egocentricity with a few tone-deaf anecdotes: like how embarrassing it was to be ranked ahead of First Lady Michelle Obama on the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women in 2011. But no one less than Gloria Steinem posted this defense of Sandberg on Facebook: “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

 

Elizabeth Marcellino is a reporter for Southern California’s City News Service and a freelancer whose work appears regularly in Malibu Magazine.

Elizabeth Marcellino is a reporter for Southern California’s City News Service and a freelancer whose work appears regularly in Malibu Magazine.