“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.”