First things first: This article isn’t about Sheryl Sandberg’s book.
(For those of you who don’t know, Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) chief operating officer just debuted a book called “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” which I admittedly have not yet read.)
Instead, it’s about what the reaction to her book tells us about ourselves. The female exec’s bestselling book has been blowing up the blogosphere, sparking discussion about parenting, gender, equality, corporate culture, upward mobility and so on … but also far too much criticism of Sandberg herself.
Which is a shame. Because, really, the discussion and debates aren’t really about Sandberg at all.
Sandberg is being attacked left and right, with a common complaint being that she cannot speak for “normal” women … despite the popular idea that it’s the “duty” of successful women to help other women. (See: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” — a quote making the rounds thanks to Taylor Swift.)
Of course, as Sandberg remains the center of some not-so-hot attention, plenty of people have noticed just how tough it is to be on top if you’re a female. Here are a few takes:
- Katie Roiphe, Slate: It’s one of our current ironies that the same people complaining that there are not enough women CEOs seem to harbor a special contempt for the women CEOs we do have. We like to say there aren’t enough women in the higher echelons of spectacularly successful business people, but when women do rise to those echelons, we attack them for that spectacular success.
- Lisa Suhay, The Christian Science Monitor: It seems to me that we love to make heroes out of women who succeed in traditionally male-dominated roles and then we absolutely glory in being catty about their success as we claw out the eyes that were on the prize.
- Henry Blodget, Yahoo Finance: When men get more successful, people like them more. But the more successful a woman is, the less people like her. Unfortunately, Sandberg’s own experience would seem to confirm that. Sandberg has become one of the most successful and powerful women in the world. And now, after writing a book that does little more than urge women to believe in themselves and be more assertive in their careers, Sandberg is being pilloried for a litany of perceived sins.
This kind of catch-22 is far too common for successful career women; Sandberg is just the latest example. The lack of women in high-ranking positions, for instance, is often blamed on the fact that females are too emotional or weak. But when women climb to the top while breaking those stereotypes — think Hillary Clinton in her go-to power suit, or Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer and her recent tough-shit telecommuting decision — they are often then criticized for not being “female” and empathetic enough. (“Mayer is a mother!” people exclaimed. “How dare she make things harder for other moms!”)
Facing the Music
The real question, though, is why criticism has been the most common response to Sandberg’s book — and the fact that many powerful women face similar struggles is hardly an answer. As Katie Roiphe went on to note in her compelling Slate piece:
The main critiques of Sandberg and Mayer boil down to the fact that they are ‘not like us.’ And yet, it is precisely because they are not like us that we should admire them, or at least be pleased, abstractly, about their existence on earth.
Of course, the reason it’s so hard to admire their success is precisely because of our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, self-help, self-made society. While we acknowledge — and for her part, Sandberg seems to acknowledge as well — the institutional barriers, struggles of family-work balance and even plain luck necessary for success, having a woman look down from the top of the ladder and give us ideas of how to get there places the responsibility right back in our hands.
It makes us realize that we as women make choices every day that help decide where we are. It makes us realize that we could do things differently. And being forced to confront our choices makes us uncomfortable, insecure and apparently jealous — emotions that then seem to turn us into stereotypical mean girls.
A recent post from Cullen Roche about the stock market in general speaks to the same issue. Roche was exploring a simple question — why (most) people hate good financial news. And the answer he came up with was simple as well: When stock prices go up and “we see signs that those around us are making progress, it makes us feel like we’re falling behind.”
A similar answer can be applied to the question of why (most) people — even (and especially) women — seem to dislike super-successful women. It’s much easier to see other women also struggling — get lots of bad news about how few females are CEOs, how we make less money on the dollar — because it justifies out own difficulties, whether that be a subtle glass ceiling, less pay or having to give up a career altogether.
Really, the conversation around Sandberg and her hot-button book tells us way more about ourselves and our insecurities than it ever could about Sandberg herself.
On top of that, it shows that we need to learn to take other people’s advice and success with a grain of salt — and without losing sight of the real issues. Heck, even complaining that Sandberg is “not like us,” makes little sense, considering her outlier status is part of the problem she is addressing to begin with.
So whether you admire Sandberg or disagree with her, don’t attack her. Because in the end, none of this is about her at all.