It would be a shame if women beat up on female leaders such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg for taking a different path than the one laid out by “movement feminists.”
Never mind that Mayer and Sandberg have broken gender barriers within the male-dominated world of technology, or that they’ve shown little girls and grown women alike what it looks like when women climb to the top and command top dollar.
They’ve been criticized and picked apart by the very people who should be celebrating their high-profile success. So what if they haven’t followed the collective mission? They’ve done it their way, which, perhaps, makes it all the more remarkable.
Critics want to take Mayer to task for taking a truncated maternity leave and, instead, building a nursery next to her office. Rather than hiding her pregnancy or acting like motherhood will take a back seat to her career, she’s integrated them together -- and unapologetically. You'd think that would inspire anyone who has, or wants to have, a family while pursing a successful career. Now people are deriding her for banning Yahoo’s employees from telecommuting, calling the move a punishment to working moms.
Sandberg is also feeling the heat.
Like Mayer, she’s being attacked for her success. In Sandberg’s case, the logic goes, her wealth and power set her apart from the majority of women who don’t have access to the luxuries and help that money can buy. Therefore, she shouldn’t have a say on what’s best for women, especially in a book Sandberg has described as “a sort of feminist manifesto.”
But that’s not all. Her book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," out next week, has also been lambasted for telling women to take personal responsibility.
Jenny Hendrix explains some of the controversy in The Times’ books blog Jacket Copy:
Sandberg has drawn criticism for choosing to focus largely on internal, rather than external, impediments to success, leading to the suggestion that she blames women for their own lack of progress when the deck is already stacked against them.
Here are some of Sandbergs critics in their own words.
“Sheryl Sandberg is No Betty Friedan,” writes Michael Kazin. In the New Republic, he argues:
The movement she had in mind throughout her long career as an activist had little or nothing in common with the lavish self-help scheme that Sandberg now proposes to finance. The Feminine Mystique, Friedan wrote in her memoir, was intended to bring about “monumental social change” that “would be very threatening to those who couldn’t deal with that change, men and women.” Yes, she might tell Sandberg, every professional woman should get the best job she can. But demolishing gender inequality requires a more radical, pro-labor perspective than entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley -- of either gender -- would be inclined to indulge.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd is not buying what Sandberg is selling either. In her column, “Pompom Girl for Feminism,” she writes:
Sandberg may mean well, and she may be setting up a run for national office. But she doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign. Just because digital technology makes connecting possible doesn’t mean you’re actually reaching people.
Sandberg’s narrow focus doesn’t account for working mothers, writes Bridget Williams, senior vice president of business and audience development at Business Insider:
I wholeheartedly believe that those blessed with great talents and power can and should use their pedestal to push for change for those that can’t. But I think that what Sheryl legitimately sees and feels in her life is just too far afield from the reality of working women everywhere. By setting herself up as The Voice for keeping mothers in the workplace, but ignoring the issues that most working mothers are facing, she’s missing a much bigger opportunity. She is talking to a very small subset of women. Lean in, sit at the table, don’t check out. Yes, OK. Fine. But if she wants a broad audience, she needs to start talking about more substantive issues that affect a broad swath of working mothers.
Not everyone takes a dim view of Sandberg, though. Opining for the Washington Post, Jessica Valenti writes:
The detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience. When was the last time you heard someone with a platform as big as hers argue that women should insist that their partners do an equal share of domestic work and child care?
The view that Sandberg is too rich and powerful to advise working women is shortsighted; it assumes that any sort of success is antithetical to feminism. The truth is, feminism could use a powerful ally. Here’s a nationally known woman calling herself a feminist, writing what will be a wildly popular book with feminist ideas, encouraging other women to be feminists. And we’re worried she has too much influence? That she’s too . . . ambitious?
And the Guardian’s Jill Filipovic argues that Sandberg deserves more credit:
Some of what Sandberg suggests is helpful to all women -- the basics of advocating for yourself, not backing away from opportunities you want because you think they'll be inconsistent with a family you don't yet have, feeling entitled to a seat at the table, expecting more from men. […] Women face very real barriers, men are given very real unearned benefits, and these are collective social problems. This isn't all in our heads, and it can't be fixed with an individual attitude adjustment. But on an individual level, we can take steps that both better our own lives and help pave the way for institutional changes. We do need to focus on our own completely logical but ultimately self-defeating internal responses to all the external cues we receive. Advocating for ourselves, taking risks and staying in the game may not always work out in exactly the way we want, but it's better than shrugging our shoulders and waiting for The System to change itself.
Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier