It’s obvious that Sheryl Sandberg’s life bears no resemblance to the lives of most women. The double Harvard degrees. Having former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Washington Post Company CEO Don Graham as her mentors. The $50 million net worth. The “exceptional” child care, and the helpful staff.
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The very, very, very high-achieving, it’s tempting to say, are different from you and me. And in some ways, that’s true. They have different opportunities. They tend to have more money. They tend — dare I stick my neck out to say this? — to have outsized talents, drive, focus, and stamina. They have a clarity of vision and sense of purpose that gets them where they need to go.
We admire men for all these differences. We applaud their distinction; we don’t wrinkle our noses at the word “ambitious” when it applies to them. We celebrate girls with these qualities — do all we can to raise our daughters to be mini-Sandbergs — and yet we punish women who show their strengths, and, god forbid, enjoy them too openly. The early reception of Sandberg’s book, from the New York Times’ snarky profile through the Greek chorus of who-does-she-think-she-is reader response that followed, drives this point home. In fact, that reception provides more proof for Sandberg’s core message than she probably ever could have imagined. The fact is: when women put themselves out there, they invite a massive slap-down. Success and likeability are inversely correlated for us. And the result is, often enough, without even realizing that we’re doing it, women take themselves out of the game to avoid isolation. “In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others,” is how Sandberg puts it, in the much-debated Lean In. “We put ourselves down before others can.”
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I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t do this. Nor a teenage girl, for that matter. It’s not just a career strategy for those poised to race to the top. It’s a universal modus vivendi, a means of emotional survival.
Sandberg says up front in Lean In that she chose to focus on this highly personal aspect of the forces that hold women back, rather than the institutional factors that limit their progress, because she believes they go hand-in-hand. In the “chicken-and-egg situation” of having to choose between writing about changing structures — bringing more work-family policies to our workplaces, and passing family-friendly laws in our Congress — and changing the ways in which women regard themselves and are considered, she chooses to focus on the latter, in part, she says, because she believes the personal is something that women can more readily control. (One can imagine, in the spreadsheet-driven way this former McKinsey consultant lives her life, that she racked up the pros and cons of each approach, added them up, and perhaps even asked one of Facebook’s “quants” to supply an algorithm.)
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As an abstract existential matter, or, more concretely, as a prescription for activism, I’m not sure I agree; a strong argument can be made that, as was the case with the Civil Rights Act, for example, it’s legislation that drives, indeed forces, cultural change. But in terms of writing an engaging and thought-provoking book that can get the largest possible number of women to think hard about their lives and question the attitudes and informal practices around them, I think she’s spot on. Good policy is urgently necessary, but talking about it is a snooze. While public opinion stands firmly behind family-friendly change, politics stand in the way. With the women’s leadership gap glaring before us, something has to give. Some spark is needed to help women see that their individual difficulties are widely shared; that they’re not alone in feeling that their lives aren’t quite working out the way they’re supposed to be.
Sandberg’s book — if enough women actually read it — might just provide that long-needed “click.” Because Sandberg, for better or worse, speaks to women where they are: thinking about their lives in terms of their own personal choices, relationships and trajectories. She speaks their language: our all-too-universal language of self-doubt, of striving to please, of often feeling like an “imposter” when things go well, or feeling like a failure when everything can’t come together just right. And she positions herself — despite all her stellar achievements — right in the midst of this self-questioning, self-defeating, relational morass, when she admits that she has made every mistake she calls out in her book.
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The net effect: unlike our most well-intentioned, policy-minded women’s advocates, Sandberg connects. After many pages of detailing her weaknesses, false steps, and insecurities, she delivers the message, if even I can do it, you can, too. With the corollary message that, as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus has put it, “If Sheryl Sandberg can feel this way and still be Sheryl Sandberg, maybe I can, too.” It may well be that this sort of connection is a stepping stone to collective identification, and then action. If so, Sandberg will have given the now much-repudiated women’s movement an invaluable boost.
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It’s easy to believe that women like Sandberg breathe a rarefied air, or are touched by magical qualities that protect them from the challenges the rest of us face. But they live in the same world. They drink the same cultural Kool-Aid. They also — by virtue of their power, their talents, and their potential for enormous influence — have an outsized ability to change the way we see and think about successful women, at any level of the food chain. They have an outsized ability to affect the way we think about ourselves. And that’s why Sandberg’s message matters deeply: it has a shot at bringing about a cultural change that would improve the lives of all women.