Why are people leaning on “Lean In”?

By Chrystia Freeland
March 14, 2013

“Man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female. Whenever she tries to behave as a human being she is accused of trying to emulate the male.” That observation by Simone de Beauvoir helped to inspire the feminist revolution after World War Two. Two generations later, Sheryl K. Sandberg has written a book, “Lean In,” arguing that is still the case today.

Some critics have challenged Sandberg’s authority to comment on the female condition because her gilded perch as chief operating officer of Facebook makes her one of the most powerful and richest women in the world. But it is precisely that insider’s perspective – what Sandberg demurely describes as her front-row seat – that makes her “sort of feminist manifesto” so persuasive and so radical.

It is radical because Sandberg is not decrying the vile misogyny that oppresses women in some distant and impoverished land. The sexism endured by the women of, say, Afghanistan is of course incomparably more severe and more limiting than the stereotypes that trammel the graduates of Harvard Business School. But it is also much easier for the privileged Westerners – men and women alike – who inhabit Sandberg’s world to champion the cause of downtrodden females in another, poorer society. Confronting the problems in your own backyard – or indeed your own corner office – is more personally threatening.

The most privileged American neighborhoods – places like Harvard Yard or Silicon Valley – usually think of themselves as beacons of enlightenment. But, as Sandberg documents, drawing both on academic research and on personal experience, even in these hyper-educated, proudly meritocratic communities, De Beauvoir’s constrictive observation holds true.

For women in the workplace, the problem is, as Sandberg told me in an interview this week, that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. As a man gets better, gets more successful, gets more powerful, gets to the corner office, everyone likes him better, men and women. As a woman gets more successful, everyone likes her less, men and women.”

This is De Beauvoir all over again – when women try to behave like human beings, and seek professional success, we punish them for behaving in an unattractive, “masculine” way. What makes juggling success and likeability particularly hard for professional women – Sandberg describes the balance as “like trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels” – is that the premium on being liked is not only imposed from the outside.

It is also a quality – perhaps the quality – women have been raised to value within themselves most highly. Even Sandberg – a Harvard scholar and one of the world’s most successful technology executives – cares so much about being liked that it has limited her ability to lead. That’s what Mark E. Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, told her during her first career review; Zuckerberg, she said, “was right.”

One of the ironies of the ferocious reaction to Sandberg’s book is that much of it confirms her core thesis. The chief criticism of her is that she is offering a path to success for privileged women at the very top. Her book, the prosecution argues, speaks only for these she-wolves. What the critics are really saying is that Sandberg is behaving too much like a man, and speaking too much for other women who do the same thing.

Sandberg has a couple of retorts. Her tip for women seeking a raise is to “think personally, act communally.” That is a good way to describe her faith in the broader value of getting more women on top. In our interview, she returned to this theme again and again – not only does she really believe it, she also understands that she herself needs to act communally to get her message heard.

When push comes to shove, though, Sandberg is happy to declare that it is OK – even good! – for professional women to be ambitious purely because they have, as the subtitle of her book puts it, the will to lead.

Sandberg’s target is good, old-fashioned sexism – both the kind that lingers in women’s own hearts and the sort found in their bosses’ offices. Inevitably, though, some of the people she has angered most are her fellow feminists, particularly two of the currently ascendant schools: the work-life balance advocates and the “choice” feminists, who believe all the life choices women make are equally valid. She points out that these innocuous-sounding approaches often push women into a life of underachievement, and one whose limitations are no less objectionable because they seem to be chosen rather than imposed.

Sandberg is no fiery polemicist: Her tone is “relentlessly pleasant,” the approach she advises for women negotiating with their bosses. But, in her deeply nice, data-driven way, Sandberg is making a revolutionary argument. The high-achieving precincts of the United States she describes believe profoundly in their own meritocracy – that is the justification for their overweening personal wealth and power. Can you really be a meritocracy if only half the world is in your race?

5 comments

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Ms. Freeland,

More often than not I take some issue with what you write, but it isn’t because you’re female. It’s because my perspective and/or life experience is not infrequently different from yours (and that’s OK!).

That said, I think this piece is the finest I’ve read from you. It’s balanced, accurate, and “pitch perfect. Disclosure: I’m a guy. KUDOs!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Women are liked less the more successful they become? Probably. Men are liked more? You clearly don’t know much about men.

Although you could argue that men are more attractive to women the more successful they become, but success does not make women as appealing.

A major problem with the whole feminist thesis is present right at the beginning. “Man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female” Isn’t that feminism all over? If equality were the target, why not a more gender neutral word?

Feminism may identify many difficulties that women face, it has no clue about men. Perhaps it doesn’t want to have, if that is the case feminists should stop trying to comment on what men think and what motivates them.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

Perhaps women’s greater aversion than men to “leaning in” can be attributed to a lower threshold tolerance for the ruthlessness, corruption and deceit required to function at high leadership levels. Perhaps the trait of being functioning sociopaths is less common in women. Perhaps its a compliment to women, instead of a knock, that they don’t “lean in” more often.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

Why some people, who are defensive about their self perceived foibles, project them onto others is a shame and intellectually dishonest. Ms. Sandberg apparently felt threatened enough by her own that she found it necessary to write a book.

She exposes a bit of arrogance in trying to impose her sense of self-worth onto others as if what they value in life is less important than what she values. Her attitude smacks of chauvinism.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

“As a woman gets more successful, everyone likes her less, men and women.” Right.

Posted by jbgfour | Report as abusive