Should Sheryl Sandberg be a Feminist Role Model?

Disclaimer: I began this post in August 2011 and with the flurry of activity that is graduate school, I just now completed this thought. Any datedness is my fault, not the fault of my awesome friends who contributed their voices to this conversation. ~veronica

Photo from The New Yorker profile
One day over the summer I realized that Sheryl Sandberg had taken over my inbox.

I had press releases about her TED talk and her Barnard commencement address, with pleas to blog about them. Then came emails about a profile in The New Yorker. People wanted me to know about her and friends wanted to know what I thought of her. Is she a feminist? Is her advice feminist? Should we be playing her TED talk to every woman and girl? Finally my curiosity took over. I dove into the pool that is Sheryl Sandberg.

And I jumped right back out.

My mind was spinning and I wasn’t sure what to think. This is where I usually email a friend or two to talk it out. Maybe start a conversation on Facebook or Twitter. But I didn’t even know where to really start. As I walked my way through Sandberg’s remarks, I knew what I had to do. Assemble a small flock of feminist thinkers:

* Cinnamon Cooper: Textbook editor by day, purse maker by night. She also is the author of Everything Cast-Iron Cooking. Not to mention one of my best friends.

* Kate D.: Fundraiser to feminist organizations aka she writes the grants that fund the revolution. She currently works at a reproductive rights organization in DC. We became friends when she lived in Chicago and we were in the same book club.

* Tina Johnson: Human Resources Consultant. We became friends when we both participated in Leadership Illinois.

* Courtney Martin: Editor at We met when we spoke on a panel together in 2010.

* Claire Mysko: Author of You’re Amazing! and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? I can’t recall how we actually met, but each time we chat I feel like we’ve been friends forever.

* Latoya Peterson: Editor of Racialious and all-around awesome hip hop feminist. We became friends during the third 2008 Progressive Women’s Voices class.

I chose this group of lady friends (including a few who wanted to join us, didn’t have time to contribute) because of their diverse vantage points in leadership, organizational management and feminist thought.

Veronica: Do you think that Sandberg is a feminist? Why or why not? She has implemented a progressive family leave policy, but dismisses affirmative action for women. What does it mean to be a feminist in such a public role?

Latoya: She may not be a feminist in name, but I’d consider her actions and award her the title. True, she could use a bit of education as to what “structural issues” are, since she appears to think that everyone has an even shot - and life just doesn’t work that way. However, she does go out of her way to speak to and address women, and acts a mentor and advocate in the workplace. The sentiment is mixed, but I can think of many other women who don’t mentor, advocate, or even publicly discuss matters of gender.

Kate: I read the article about French feminist Elisabeth Badinter in the July 25th edition of the New Yorker and that piece also focused on this issue a bit. This is nothing new in feminism of course, but I like the acknowledgement (in both pieces) that oftentimes, taking this kind of position is grounded in a level of privilege that most women (or even most people) do not enjoy. So, as Cinnamon says below, I am supportive of practical approaches to advancement for women and I think they’re useful, but I cringe to see them offered as some kind of panacea. Like it’s just that easy, you know? Of course it’s not. It’s kinda like that whole brouhaha with Oprah and “The Secret” a few years back (which I know was blown up and overgeneralized and I’m sure misunderstood by many on both sides, but still) - sometimes there are very real barriers to achievement with which the more well-off feminist thinkers and businesswomen are wholly unfamiliar, and ignoring them is a huge blind spot.The “structural issues” issue, as Latoya mentions above.

Veronica: Is Sandberg the epitome of “a guy’s feminist?” A strong and smart woman who is willing to do the work, has a family and above all rarely blames men or society for women’s lot. She instead points the finger at women. Or is she, as Latoya points out, just blind to the systemic and structural challenges that women face?

Courtney: I’m with others who have talked about her neglect of systemic issues and privilege. She leads the TED talk by admitting that many women in other countries are in a different boat, but doesn’t admit how different many American women’s realities are. The way she flattens out American women infuriates me, particularly as she is being given so much airtime to call attention to the ways in which class, race etc. are still beasts in determining women’s trajectories in life and leadership.

Tina: My personal opinion is Sandberg has been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time; now you can argue this is luck or strategic. There is no doubt she is a bright women who knows exactly how to get what she wants in life. She has been able to find the right mentors and people to help her climbing the corporate ladder. Finding a mentor is a tough thing for a woman (as we read in the article) I worked hard to find a mentor and never was able to make that happen, women didn’t want to help me because I looked like a threat to them and men didn’t want to citing that they were too busy, but I think it was most likely the same reason that was stated in the article.

Sandberg is fortunate to a nanny and people who work to help her at home. But I have to believe that she pays for that with trade-offs that are of her own choosing. I don’t believe she makes a decision without weighing all of the facts and honestly, raise your hands with me, haven’t we all paid someone to clean our houses and help with chores.

Claire: I agree with everyone who has pointed out Sandberg’s failure to address the real systemic barriers women face in the workplace. Pat Mitchell’s criticism of her networking dinners made up of a group of educated, elite women hit the nail on the head for me. It’s this “head in the sand” mentality that kept bothering me more each time I read the article.

And let’s not forget that Sheryl Sandberg’s mentor was Larry Summers. The same Larry Summers who, while president of Harvard, got himself into hot water after making public comments about how he believes there are differences between men’s and women’s “intrinsic aptitude” in engineering and science. The same Larry Summers who played a key role in deregulating financial markets. And we all know how that went. The article raised an interesting issue that most women lack sponsorship from senior male executives—and that Sandberg’s success is due in part to fact that she did have that kind of sponsorship from a man with a lot of power--but in all honesty the Summers brand of power doesn’t really jibe with my feminism. This is not to say that Sandberg necessarily espouses every one of Summers’ beliefs because she was mentored by him or even that Summers is an all-around bad guy. But I do think that when we talk about the importance of giving women access to power, we should also examine what kind of power we’re talking about.

Veronica: Does Sandberg need to “lean in” to Facebook’s board? She uses that term to describe how women need to jump into career opportunities, especially leadership opportunities. There is an importance of women in high positions. When women are a critical mass (at least three) in the board room, women and girls’ issues are on the table. Perhaps if enough women were on Facebook’s board, then the issue of pro-rape pages and groups wouldn’t be an issue anymore.

Latoya: Depends. Would that be a symbolic victory, or does being on the board just make sense for her career trajectory? She may want to use that energy for other projects or other things. I think that Facebook needs to look seriously at the composition of their board, but I don’t think that every woman in the spotlight has to do every single thing. I may be too green in my career to comment effectively, but I thought people joined boards for things they are very, very committed to. Especially folks with a high powered gig. Does she want to go from thinking about Facebook 10 hours a day to thinking about it 15?

Courtney: As others have articulated, I find some of Sheryl’s ideas really resonant, particularly the “lean in” idea. I’ve noticed moments in my own life when I’ve “leaned out” and it rarely had to do with systemic injustice as much as my own fears or insecurities. Her voice will now be in my head in those moments--a real gift. I also like her look at the ways in which women and men cast their success differently. I wrote about both of these elements.

Cinnamon: I think the thing that struck me the most was how her actions seem very inclusive of women and very family/female friendly, but yet she doesn’t seem to rattle the seats of those above her. I wish that was questioned more. Why doesn’t she want a seat on the board at Facebook? And why didn’t the interviewer get Mark Zuckerberg to answer the question about why she’s not on the board. It makes me wonder if she’s just gotten lucky to always find a male mentor who will help her advance, but only so far and when she hits her limit she moves to the next opportunity instead of just accepting the blockage. Considering her role and what she’s done at Facebook already, I think she deserves a board position and I’m shocked that she isn’t fighting for it. Unless she is fighting for it but decided to not make that fight public.

Veronica: Do you think Pat Mitchell and Gloria Steinem should be more public with their criticism or keep it public? Do you appreciate/have public debates with friends?

Courtney: I actually thought this was one of the most interesting things about the piece. Gloria and Pat were able to express their disagreements or disappointments with Sheryl’s analysis without being cast as catty or back-stabbing, as is so often the case when powerful women disagree with one another publicly. It was heartening to me that they felt comfortable being real about their differing view points, without making anything into a personal attack, and that the journalist respected the spirit in which these disagreements were communicated and didn’t manipulate it to create drama.

Veronica: What does a feminist leader/manager look like? What should leadership look like from a feminist?

Cinnamon: I was one of the bajillion viewers who watched her TED talk online a while ago and it has resonated with me. The 3 things she mentions in that talk are great and practical tips for any woman who is working. Her tone in the TED piece is encouraging without sounding antagonistic. And is presented in a way that I don’t feel is pointing the finger at women. However the finger-pointing came through stronger in this article. I think it is not only productive, but necessary to get women to change their actions so they can advance. But if that is done without looking at why women need to “learn” things later in life that men “pick up” along the way, then women can only advance so far. I would like to see her do a follow up video explaining 3 things men can do.

As a feminist and a manager I’ve done a lot of soul searching to make sure that my expectations of my staff and my interactions with them are not affected by any gender differences that I’m aware or unaware of. When assigning tasks, offering feedback, and doing reviews I think about what I’m going to say and why I’m saying it and ask myself if I would say it to someone else on the team who is of a different gender/age/etc. My approach may be different for each person I work with, but I try to make sure that those differences are because of the individuals’ personality and not something I’m bringing. I think this approach has made me a better feminist and a better manager and a better person. And I think Sandberg does that as well. Her making everyone in a meeting scoot together so everyone can fit at a table is one action. This inclusive attitude benefits women and I see it as being very feminist and am surprised she doesn’t.

Tina: While reading Sandberg’s article, I was immediately struck by the fact that at her core she is a servant leader which is probably why many of the things she professes ring true for me. A servant leader as described by Robert K. Greenleaf is “a person who is servant first, who has responsibility to be in the world, and so he/she contributes to the well-being of people and community.

When I look at the article from that point, I don’t know whether I would call her a feminist leader or some hybrid of the two. I have a difficult time with the title of feminist and what that means to me so I have spent some time soul searching and will continue to see how this manifests itself with me.

I found several themes in the article in addition to servant leadership. I found pragmatic, righteous and social themes in the article which points to the fact Sandberg tries to appeal to all women. Being able to appeal to women is genius in my book. If she can move women toward a call of action, I am right behind her.

Sandberg works hard to hold woman accountable for their actions and to make certain they are held to a high standard. I really like how she talks about the fact we are not leading the lives our mothers and grandmothers led. That portion resonated for me since I have worked hard over my own career to make certain I don’t take for granted what women before me either gave up or fought for. Again, I see that her servant leadership heart is compelling her to reach out and push women to do more and be more and as I said above, her means to call them to action is varied and seems to work.

As far as her work to recruit people to Facebook from Google and other companies, well from my HR background there is nothing wrong with this, we all are guilty recruiting people we know, correct me if I am wrong, but I think this is called ”Networking” and all of the boys are doing it! Of this, for Sandberg it is just more public due to her level in the organization and the fact that she has put herself out there for people to watch her every move. I believe we are still fighting a double standard here, the boys are allowed to have their clubs and hire their buddies, but when women do it, OMG what is the world coming too. I also have to believe since people are calling her to ask about opportunities, they are not happy where they are and/or are looking for the next step. Kudos, to those women who are taking upon themselves to call and ask, isn’t what Sandberg is pushing women to do. Men to it all of the time, ask for the sale, ask for the deal, ask for the job, ask for the assignment and the list goes on. I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that not only does she recruit people but she develops them. What better way to grow to the next level and again, we see her servant leadership side coming out.

So, is Sandberg a feminist or should we coin a new leadership style here and call her a Servant Leadership Feminist or a Servant Feminist Leader. I am still fuzzy on that whole title thing. I have never been a huge fan of titles, but in this work-a-day world we have to embrace them whether we like it or not. So for now, I think I will join the ranks of Sandberg and be a Feminist Servant Leader and explore what the leadership model looks like for all of us!

Claire: I thought the piece really illustrated the heap of conflicting rules of engagement women face when it comes to leadership. On the one hand, Sandberg used the example of her “aha!” moment when she was embarrassed about being invited to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, and was pushed by the event organizer to “own her power.” But wait! The truth is that she’s successful because she has ambition but she’s so modest and “low ego” (says Mark Zuckerberg). And then there’s all that research about the pitfalls of being perceived as incompetent if you’re too nurturing and you invest time and energy in helping others succeed. Which is, of course, exactly what Sandberg does herself when she encourages other women to “sit at the table.” Don’t ask “girly” questions, but okay, let’s talk about the dilemma women face when taking time off to have children. Don’t worry so much about balance. And yet…how the heck do we get to some models of feminist leadership that don’t end up making women feel like they’re performing a tightrope act?

Since this conversation took place, Sandberg has only increased her visibility as a powerful woman who expresses concern over other women for leaning back or opting out. She continues to be asked to speak to young women about leadership and taking control of their careers.

And for the most part, I agree with her. I too have seen women step back, quit before they start. Hell, I've done it. But she rarely addresses the system where women make their choices is just wrong.

Put simply, for women, to choose to not do something is acceptable. It is a seductive choice to make. To "choose" to quit work and stay home is socially acceptable. Yes, I know stay-at-home-moms get a lot of shit about "not working," but as a working mom, their situation is freaking tempting when day after day I stay up far too late to get through my own homework. I'm not complaining about my life, rather I'm admitting that even this feminista mama who loves her work and is in the middle of a PhD program so she can do her job even more kick ass considers chucking it all to stay at home. Is the inertia to work outside the home as strong for SAHM as the pull to stay home in times of crisis or doubt for working outside the home mamas? I think it's that pull that keeps us stuck to the back of our chair, almost physically unable to "lean in" as Sandberg demands.

As we cheer on Sandberg as a role model, I want us to keep in mind where she has learned her business savvy. One of her mentors is Larry "Girls Can't Do Math" Summers. He also doesn't believe that women want to work the kind of hours that Sandberg puts in. He quotes her, not by name, in his infamous speech as he talks about women not wanting to work 80 hours a week:
Another way to put the point is to say, what fraction of young women in their mid-twenties make a decision that they don't want to have a job that they think about eighty hours a week...To buttress conviction and theory with anecdote, a young woman who worked very closely with me at the Treasury and who has subsequently gone on to work at Google highly successfully, is a 1994* graduate of Harvard Business School. She reports that of her first year section, there were twenty-two women, of whom three are working full time at this point. 
And yet, many women are waiting with baited breath for Sandberg to lean forward to demand her place on the Facebook Board of Directors. Not one woman sites on that board and who more worthy of the token girl spot than Sandberg? As CV Harquail says:

Leadership requires the leader to use her presence, her platform, and her power to make a difference. And authentic leadership requires a person to align her presence, her platform, and her power to maximize their impact and make her leadership real.

If Sandberg truly wants young women to follow her lead, I believe she needs to do more than become a billionaire and give truly amazing speeches. She can't extoll women to take the reins when she allows (she's second in command and must have some say in the matter) for the board to be composed of only white men.

And that's where Sandberg really gets my goat. Has she hit a glass ceiling herself and pushes young women to make up for her inability to change Facebook's board? Or is it that she doesn't care? The board isn't my only issue with Sandberg, but it's a great manifestation of all the smaller things that irk me. For the most part I like Sandberg's messages, I want young women to feel like they can do anything they set their mind to. However, there's something about Sandberg's messages that makes me hesitant to pay the dues for fan club access.

Many of the students I interact with see Sandberg as a role model. They find inspiration in her words. Perhaps her speeches will result in more women leaders. Only time will tell. Considering I remember what it was like in my early 20s, perhaps they are using Sandberg's words to fortify their own promise to themselves that they won't sit back and let life happen to them...until that day they do sit back. I just hope they don't beat themselves up too much over it.

Sandberg has branded herself a motivator of women. She has challenged us to be a leader in our own lives. And some of us are challenging her right back.

* Sandberg's official biography says she graduated in 1995, thus I assume Summers merely got the year incorrect. If anyone knows that Summers is talking about someone else, please let me know and I'll retract this point.