On Leaning In, or Not

I knew my hopes for Sheryl Sandberg’s speech were so high that I was bound to be disappointed. And, after having heard her speech and reading her book, it seems to me that there are some major flaws in Sandberg’s message.

I genuinely believe women and men are equal. Women deserve to earn the same compensation as men, and I loathe the fact that we do not. I want to be powerful, successful and influential, and I believe women have the same capacity as men to lead. On paper, I should be the biggest advocate of Sandberg.

But, I’m a privileged, American woman at a top liberal arts college. Sandberg’s message can and does only apply to certain women, like myself, and I think that is a large flaw in her message.

She encourages women to believe in themselves, claiming that self-confidence and pride will lead to achieving goals. However, it is mostly highly educated women who will, realistically, have the abilities and opportunities to become the CEO or president of a company or institution.

Sandberg’s message needs a qualifier: come on, women, shoot for your dreams –  provided you have a college education from a respected, four-year institution. It’s easy for Harvard-educated Sandberg to say anything is possible. While I am not trying to downplay her achievements and obvious intelligence, it’s clear that she was given certain opportunities to which the vast majority of women will not have access.

Thus, Sandberg omits the majority of women workers from her message – the retail workers, the waitresses, the nurses, and on and on. She speaks exclusively about the upper-crust executives in the fields of finance, government, education, et cetera. Why isn’t she encouraging women to become the manager of the store in which they’re working? I’ve done the retail bit, and managing several employees in a store is certainly not for the faint-hearted. A female manager can obviously also have a positive influence on the wages and treatment of their female employees.

Another issue I have is Sandberg’s advice on marriage: to “marry the right one.” Well, Sheryl, I would just love to have that for myself and for everyone I care about – if everyone found the “right” one, they would work through their problems and there’d be no divorce, right? Sounds perfect, so too bad it’s incredibly unrealistic. I’m glad Sandberg found the “right” man with whom she can divvy up her domestic duties. But, unfortunately, not everyone can be so lucky. This is yet another example of Sandberg being blessed with opportunities with which others simply may not.

Sandberg is calling for women to be ambitious and persistent, to push past their comfort zones and the constraints of society (to “lean in”). However, this Dominique Francon-like, commandeering attitude is not necessarily a natural inclination for many women. Feeling uncomfortable and untrue to oneself is not going to lead to greater success for these women, and it’s unfair for Sandberg to assume that everyone would even want to “lean in.”

In the end, Sandberg should be encouraging women to pursue their own personal goals – those formed by their values, personalities and situations, and not by Sandberg’s own perception of success. For her, “success” is juggling a career, marriage and children, but who is she to say that being successful requires all three of these obligations? For some, a fulfilling career is having it all, for others, it’s devoting time and effort to raising children and maintaining a household. And for some, a strong marriage, without children or a career, is what they desire. Sandberg is equating motherhood today with being the same as motherhood in the 1950s – constraining and anti-feminist. In reality, motherhood is regarded by many modern women as their criteria for success.

If each woman were to pursue what she believes will make her successful, then more women will become more empowered, confident and respected. Sandberg should encourage women to strive to become the top seller in the store in which they work. She should encourage women to strive to become the elementary school teacher about whom everyone raves. She should encourage women to become the caring and doting mothers they hope to be. Yes, she should also encourage women to try to become an executive of a Fortune 500 company, but that is certainly not necessarily the only, best or most effective way in which women will become truly equal.