Commentary Magazine

In Praise of Sheryl Sandberg

In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” the psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined what he called our “hierarchy of needs.” Using the image of a pyramid, Maslow described its base as human beings’ physiological needs (such as food and shelter), on top of which came our needs for security, for healthy social relationships, for esteem from others, and finally, at the apex, the need for self-actualization, which included such things as creativity, problem-solving, and morality. The story of our lives is the story of our progression through this hierarchy, Maslow believed, and we were not all destined to reach the top. “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short,” he observed.

Maslow’s particular brand of humanistic psychology is no longer in fashion, but it lives on in diluted form in the advice and self-help industry, whose latest purveyor is Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 240 pages). Like Maslow, Sandberg is concerned with people reaching their full potential. Like him, she draws on elite examples to make her case: Maslow was partial to Albert Einstein and Gandhi, while Sandberg prefers former economic official and Harvard president Lawrence Summers and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Unlike Maslow, Sandberg’s message is targeted specifically to women.

The message is both bracing and long overdue. While she acknowledges that barriers to women’s success still exist in the workplace, Sandberg focuses on something else: the fact that women aren’t exhibiting as much ambition as their male counterparts. And Sandberg thinks she knows the reason why: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes. “Getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power.” In other words, ladies, stop curling up at the end of your workday with your Tension Tamer herbal tea and your perceived slights and your fantasies of a mentor who will sweep you off your feet and into the executive suite. Work harder. Put yourself forward. Stop using the future possibility of children as an excuse to check out of your career when it’s just getting started. Self-actualization is possible, Sandberg suggests, but you have to take responsibility for pursuing it. And you can’t do that with advice gleaned from Eat Pray Love; instead, think Strive Work Achieve. As a friend of mine who owns her own business said with a sigh of relief after reading the book, “Bossiness is back!”

Of course, women who don the bossy boots are guaranteed criticism for doing so, and Sandberg has been getting it from all sides. Conservatives have chastised her (correctly) for uncritically endorsing outdated feminist assumptions like the notion that an ideal world is one that achieves perfect equality between men and women in all parts of life. And culturally conservative critics have faulted her for failing to consider the needs of the children of ambitious dual-income couples and for downplaying what they believe is the unique role that mothers play in society.

On the other end of the spectrum, feminists and socially liberal critics (many of whom are themselves members of the elite) have suddenly discovered their populist pitchforks and begun waving them at Sandberg’s supposed hypocrisy in offering advice to working women when she herself has so much wealth and so many resources at her disposal. And economic leftists have condemned her uncritical acceptance of the increasingly harsh demands of capitalism on its elites.

It’s easy to focus on Sandberg’s privileged perch and, quite frankly, to envy her ability to summon armies of nannies and housekeepers, even though she acknowledges them upfront and with great appreciation. But it is harder to find fault with her assertion that all these choices have consequences, hers as much as everyone else’s. She admits that because of her own ambitions and work schedule she has “missed a level of detail” about her children’s lives, and she confesses that she “always wants to do more” for them. Sandberg is honest about her ambivalent feelings while also taking responsibility for the choices she has made (rather than casting about for others to alleviate the consequences of them). Her tone harks back to self-help manuals of previous eras, before everything was Oprah-fied and when politicized and authors hoped to cultivate some grit in their readers rather than leave them wallowing in victimhood. Reading her book, I felt as if the weight of a thousand scented candles and New Age bromides had suddenly been lifted. Sandberg is like the lovechild of Susan B. Anthony and Dale Carnegie, with a heavy dose of 21st-century business acumen thrown in.

Her sensibility makes her something of an outlier among her peer group. Sandberg’s generation was raised on the messages of second-wave feminists, many of whom made it to the top of fields that were sparsely populated with other women at the time. Their hope and expectation was that the next generation—Sandberg’s—would follow eagerly along the path they forged and thus break the patriarchy’s grip on power. That didn’t happen, and as Sandberg recalls, she and her peers had to endure many boulevard-of-broken-dreams speeches like the one she heard from Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation: “My generation fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.” Rodin’s generation of feminists very much needed a villain to help them make sense of this story: Who or what had done this terrible thing to all of these promising young women?

How unpleasant it must be, then, to hear one of those women say: Maybe we’re the problem. For them, Sandberg is committing the cardinal sin of blaming the victim. And although she gives an obligatory nod to the arguments about flex time, maternity and paternity leave, and the like, she is more interested in exploring the consequences of women’s own choices. Achievement at the highest level requires trade-offs, whether you are male or female, and Sandberg’s candor in describing her own only makes the force of her argument more challenging to the feminist notion that the problem can never be attributed to us (the women), but them (the men, the institutions they run, the government). The black-and-white, Manichean universe of female oppression and male domination in the workplace starts to look a lot grayer after reading Sandberg’s book.

Even more appalling to feminist sensibilities, Sandberg suggests that women embrace some of the techniques that have proven so successful for men: Take credit for your work; sit at the table; stop apologizing for yourself and indulging your feelings of self-doubt; quit making excuses. “Taking initiative pays off,” Sandberg writes. “It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” But this supremely rational advice directly undermines a key part of the feminist message about women in leadership: the idea that it is the workplace (and men) who should conform to women’s ways of doing things (which are, it is always assumed, superior to men’s). Sandberg notes the contradictory messages women receive: Be aggressive, but not too aggressive; be nice, but not a doormat. But instead of blaming this situation on a patriarchal corporate conspiracy, she acknowledges the frustration of this unfair reality and then does the unthinkable: She offers advice. Yes, aggressive women are seen as unlikable even when men acting the same way are not (social-science research has shown this time and time again). So use we instead of I when negotiating that raise. Be nice but also be insistent. Smile.

Is this fair in an existential sense? Of course not. But who said life is fair? How many men in the workplace feign an interest in golf or pretend to appreciate their boss’s sense of humor in order to get ahead? Sandberg suggests resisting “Tiara Syndrome,” a phrase coined by the founders of a women’s consulting group to describe how women “expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.” Instead, she advises, take some initiative, even if the system you are working in isn’t ideal.

Tiara Syndrome isn’t the only myth Sandberg properly pummels. She also takes on what might be called the “Mentor Myth.” As Sandberg tells it, young women in the workplace view the perfect female mentor just as little girls envision glittery rainbow-colored unicorns: powerful creatures whom they have only to discover for their lives to change forever. Sandberg recounts the many times that young women who are complete strangers have come up to her after speeches or meetings asking her to be their mentor. “The question is a total mood killer,” she says. She has the wit to admit that “we’ve brought this on ourselves” with incessant and boosterish encouragement of the idea that young women need female role models and advisers. You can’t throw a brick in the feminist community without hitting a female leadership academy (Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf each founded one). But Sandberg is withering in her criticism of this notion, comparing these young women’s attitudes with that of Sleeping Beauty: “Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”

Sandberg is not criticizing mentorship; throughout the book she is generous and unstinting in her praise of the people whose advice and counsel helped her get ahead. What she resists is the notion, inculcated in a generation of young women raised on the drumbeat of Girl Power, that you deserve a mentor simply by showing up and having ovaries. And she notes the tendency among these young women to assume that the mentor’s role is to devote herself to the care and nurturing of the mentee. After helping a bright woman rising through the ranks at Google (where Sandberg worked before moving to Facebook), she confessed to some surprise when the woman claimed never to have benefited from the guidance of a mentor. When Sandberg asked what her idea of a mentor was, the woman responded that it was someone she would talk to about her career for an hour a week. “I smiled,” Sandberg writes, “thinking, That’s not a mentor—that’s a therapist.”

Many of Sandberg’s mentors were men (such as Larry Summers, for whom she worked during the Clinton administration), and this, too, rankles her critics, several of whom have implied that her sponsorship by men (and continued success in the male-dominated tech industry) casts doubt on her credentials as a card-carrying member of the sisterhood. But it is her position as an outlier in her field that makes her insights persuasive. Sandberg paints an ambiguous yet more compelling portrait of female leadership, one that resonates because she has exercised leadership herself. As for uniquely female styles of leadership, however often they reign in specific instances, history and common sense suggest they are more fiction than reality in the aggregate. (I worked for an all-female organization for many years, and I can attest, Lord of the Flies had nothing on that office environment.)

Sandberg even wades into the roiling waters of women’s complex feelings about other women—the “mean girl” problem, for lack of a better term. If you spend much time perusing feminist literature about women in power, you would assume that older women in the corner office are all waiting with open and nurturing arms to embrace the next bright young female thing rising through the ranks. But as Sandberg suggests, sisterhood isn’t always powerful; all too often it’s simply pettily vindictive. Case in point: Current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who had the audacity not only to accept that high-powered position when she was pregnant, but also to be utterly transparent about her plans for working almost immediately after the birth of her child. A nurturing world of feminist leaders should have embraced such a decision, both for its honesty and its trailblazing. Instead, Sandberg writes: “The attacks on Marissa for her maternity-leave plans came almost entirely from other women. This has certainly been my experience too.”

Perhaps the best piece of advice Sandberg offers is personal, and it reads like something out of a Jane Austen novel (not the prose, of course): “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.” This is a far cry from Gloria Steinem’s tossed-off observation that “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”; indeed, Sandberg makes it clear throughout the book how crucial her husband has been to her own success and her ability to juggle an ambitious career and a family. Even when Sandberg is encouraging men to “lean in to their families” by helping more with domestic tasks, she doesn’t spare women criticism. She notes how often women engage in “maternal gatekeeping” behaviors, asking husbands to take on domestic tasks but then behaving in a critical or controlling way when they perform them (in the nonacademic literature, this is known by its more familiar term, “nagging”).

Taken together, Sandberg’s advice makes a compelling case for the argument that, contra decades of feminist propagandizing, female self-actualization is not and should not be the goal of businesses. Equal pay? Equal rights under the law? Benefits and flexibility that allow all parents to have more balanced lives? Absolutely. But a world that requires Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on the corporate spreadsheet? No thanks. Sandberg’s Lean In stands as a necessary corrective to a feminist movement that has migrated away from the pursuit of concrete political goals toward the pursuit of gauzier things like self-actualization. Women should abandon the notion that they can or should “have it all.” As Sandberg correctly notes: “The greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of this phrase.”

Sandberg reminds us that women can do a great deal to improve their own lives at the individual level, whether that is speaking up at a meeting or taking seriously the challenge of finding a good life partner. But she worries that “women will continue to sacrifice being liked for being successful.” She insists that, to the contrary, “taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves, and asking for promotions (with smiles on our faces, of course) are all important elements of managing a career.” She is cruel to be kind, but in the right measure, as the Seventies-era pop song goes. Fifty years after Betty Friedan told women what they suspected but couldn’t articulate in The Feminine Mystique, Sheryl Sandberg, in her charmingly stoic way, is telling us what we know but won’t admit. In this, her advice echoes that of a more traditional (and ancient) Stoic who was also a wise leader. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advised: “Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one.”

About the Author

Christine Rosen is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and senior editor of the New Atlantis.

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