The Reason I'll Never Buy Sheryl Sandberg's Advice

Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images.
Sheryl Sandberg has a new idea: Women should help each other succeed at work. The Facebook COO and Lean In author is rolling out Together Women Can, an initiative that encourages women to mentor and become allies with their female colleagues. “We see, all the time, women supporting women. And I think there’s a myth out there that women don’t, and it’s not true,” Sandberg said in a Good Morning America interview last week.

She fleshes out the idea in a Times op-ed that attacks a popular misconception: “The biggest enemy of women, we’re warned, is a powerful woman. Queen bees refuse to help other women. If you approach one for advice, instead of opening a door, she’ll shut the door before you can even get your foot in.” The good news is, statistics don’t support this assumption. One woman’s promotion to senior management does make a second woman’s significantly less likely (sigh), but Sandberg and co-author Adam Grant point out that “the person blocking the second woman’s path wasn’t usually a queen bee; it was a male chief executive.” Meanwhile, “token women” in positions of power are conditioned to see helping other women as a risk.

So, what can we do to counteract these depressing findings? “There’s no penalty for women mentoring women — and when they do, they’re more likely to be seen by their protégés as role models,” Sandberg and Grant write. In an interview with Lena Dunham, Sandberg offers another win-win scenario:

Women get interrupted more than men. And it's hard when you are the one being interrupted to say, "Stop it!" It's easier for other women to step in and interrupt the interrupters. Women don't get credit for their own ideas. Often they have the experience of a man sharing the same idea later at a meeting and being told it's genius. Help other women get credit by saying, "I loved when Lena said that five minutes ago, and I'm glad you brought it up again." It's a great move that helps everyone. The woman who helps looks communal and fosters goodwill, and the woman with the great idea gets credit.


This is a particularly clever strategy because, as Sandberg explains in Lean In, women are penalized for self-promoting. We’re expected to be team players — and that can render our own contributions invisible. By celebrating each other’s work, we’re making sure women get the credit they deserve while also scoring points for supporting our colleagues.

It’s difficult to criticize Sandberg, because she’s so practical and seems to have genuinely good intentions. With a net worth of $1.3 billion and a hugely influential role at Facebook, it’s not like her second career as a feminist spokeswoman is paying her bills. And I don’t think she’s exactly wrong, either. Who would ever argue that women shouldn’t mentor and advocate for each other?

What I find frustrating is Sandberg’s consistent failure to address bigger problems that exacerbate gender inequality in the workplace. For example, in her must-read critique, the feminist scholar bell hooks wonders why Lean In ignores the other prejudices so many women face at the office, preferring to assume its readers are wealthy and white. “Race is certainly an invisible category in Sandberg’s corporate fantasy world,” she writes.

Why do millennial women have to change, when it’s the workplace that’s broken?

I also agree with the many critics who’ve pointed out that in coaching individual women for success, Sandberg overlooks the need for a radically different professional world that treats all of us better. “The barriers to women’s progress are not personal; they are structural, and they are embedded in the workings of American capitalism,” says Kathleen Geier in a conversation about “Sandbergism” at The Nation. She cites a study that found “the persistence of the gender pay gap was largely due to the lack of workplace flexibility in many sectors and occupations.” But Sandberg has yet to seriously critique employers. As a former Facebook employee put it, “Sandberg’s revolution is not asking corporations to renovate their operations to eliminate sexism. Rather, revolution in Lean In is a battle to restructure the self.”

Sure, Sandberg deserves credit for helping women strive to meet impossible expectations — and in the case of Together Women Can, it’s encouraging to see her focus on fostering cooperation rather than competition. But why do millennial women have to change when it’s the workplace that’s broken? Why do we have to find ways to collaborate without challenging powerful white men’s perceptions of how we should behave? Why isn’t Sandberg holding them accountable for forcing us to contort ourselves in order to excel?

Case in point: Sandberg and Grant cite a study that suggests women and people of color are right to worry about hiring applicants who look like us. As it turns out, we’re punished because our colleagues see this as nepotism. (Let’s think about what that assumption really means: Members of the dominant group are individuals, while the rest of us might as well be part of the same self-interested family.) When white men promoted diversity, though? “They were good guys who cared about breaking down the old boys’ network," Sandberg and Grant explain. Heroes!

Sandberg loves to provide women with pragmatic action items, but this seems like the perfect moment to address white men. What if men who share or sign off on women’s hiring decisions simply maintained an awareness of this prejudice and committed to interrogating their own reactions to applicants who don’t look like them? I’d love to see them shoulder the burden of justifying “diverse” hires to upper management, seeing as it would actually be advantageous to them. The same goes for white people who share hiring responsibilities with people of color.

But instead of placing any of the onus — or the blame — on white dudes, Sandberg and Grant suddenly get vague. “It’s time to stop punishing women and minorities for promoting diversity,” they write. “And it’s time for all of us to stop judging the same behavior more harshly when it comes from a woman rather than a man.” Wait a second, who’s “all of us”?

It’s entirely possible that this obfuscation is a strategy for making Together Women Can and the overarching Lean In platform palatable to the widest possible audience. Sandberg’s philosophy relies on women walking a fine line between asserting ourselves and charming our sexist colleagues, so I’m sure she’s aware that there are advantages to elevating women without challenging men. To me, this recalls a classic pop-star sleight of hand: Promote “girl power,” but don’t ever suggest that patriarchy is the source of girls’ disempowerment, and you’ll never suffer the consequences of being seen as an angry feminist.

You may even wind up with a message mild enough to attract supporters — such as Fox News' Megyn Kelly — who see feminism as a dirty word. (Kelly appears alongside Dunham and Kerry Washington in a video promoting Together Women Can.) “One of the most heartening parts of the past year, for me, has been the outpouring of support I’ve received from women,” says Kelly, who made headlines for questioning Donald Trump’s misogyny in Republican debates. It’s gratifying to see her jump on Sandberg’s bandwagon — that is, until you remember Kelly’s history of racism and that one time she chided feminist “buttercups” on college campuses to “toughen up.” That’s when I, for one, start to wonder whether there’s such a thing as making your tent too big.

Kelly’s participation in Together Women Can suggests to me that Lean In would rather tacitly endorse bigotry in an attempt to appear bipartisan than make any move that could be interpreted as revolutionary. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a fundamental conservatism to that agenda. Baked into the idea of promoting women’s survival within the status quo is, after all, the assumption that challenging said status quo is either unnecessary or futile.

Sandberg’s refusal to call out white men strikes me as the ultimate example of this kind of thinking. In her own terms, giving other women the sisterly advice that they should help each other out “looks communal and fosters goodwill.” Even last year’s Lean In Together campaign emphasized men supporting their partners and daughters at home more than it urged them to fight discrimination in the workplace.

Perhaps that’s because questioning the way white men treat their female and minority coworkers would constitute an attack on the power relationships that underlie every interaction between colleagues, and imply that something’s rotten at the very core of corporate culture. I don’t think it’s impossible that we’ll hear such a potent critique issued from the top of a $350 billion company’s organizational chart — but I haven’t seen anything even close to it happen yet.

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