In Defense of Sheryl Sandberg

As almost everyone now knows, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook.  She is also the author of the ground-breaking book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead .

I have read the book twice.  Simply put, I think it is a brilliant manifesto for women and men alike.

Yet, the acclaim is not universal.  To the contrary, the book has been met with some hot criticism.

Perhaps I project onto Sandberg what I want to see, but I suspect that she would welcome the critical analysis.  Remember, she closes her book by saying: “My goal is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning.”

In this blog, I want to address the five most common criticisms I have read and try to respond to each of them.  Sandberg needs no defenders but defend I will.

First, some have commented that, as a multi-millionaire, Sandberg’s perspective is tainted by privilege.  No doubt that money helps solve problems and makes work-life integration easier and Sandberg acknowledges this privilege expressly.

But I have seen no similar criticisms about the wealth of men who write leadership books, from Buffet to Covey to Peters. Vanna, please give me a D:  _o__b_e  _tan_ar_

The fact that Sandberg is so successful is exactly why we should listen to her.  No disrespect intended, but would a book by someone who has failed in the business world really be worth reading for tips on how to succeed?

Second, some say Sandberg is blaming women for the lack of women in leadership positions.  In response, I am tempted to ask: did you read the book?

Sandberg acknowledges that there are many external obstacles. In her book, she chose to focus on the internal obstacles, which have not been the focus of as much intelligent analysis. Why not fight the problem on both fronts, to borrow from Sandberg?

Third, some have said that Sandberg suggests, if you don’t lead, you fail.  For example, in her NYTimes article on July 7, 2013, “Coveting Not A Corner Office, but Time at Home,” Catherine Rampell states that Sandberg “advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiates for raises and promotions.”

Really? That’s not what I read.  Sandberg is not saying everyone should seek a corner office and the other trappings described.  She is saying that those who want to lead should lean in and try to do so.

Sandberg acknowledged that she had concern that her message could be misconstrued. But Sandberg was 100 percent clear that she wants women (and men) to have the choices to lead or not lead (without judging the choices that are made.) 

The criticisms in this area perhaps speak to the degree to which women and men alike can make it harder for women who want to make it easier for women to have an equal shot at success.   Madeline Albright once said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”  There is diversity of opinion as to who gets premier seating.

Fourth, some have criticized Sandberg for suggesting dangerous conversations.  Lawyers have been critical of Sandberg’s vision that managers could talk with women about family planning and encourage them to lean in until they can’t.

It is easy to identify legal risk.  Indeed, Sandberg notes that “raising this topic [childbearing plans] would give most employment lawyers a heart attack.”

First year lawyers identify risks.  Experienced lawyers manage them. As lawyers, our goal should be to take Sandberg’s wisdom and reframe it so that we minimize the legal risk, even if we can’t eliminate it.

For example, I obviously agree that there should be no one-on-one conversations about childbearing plans.  But what if there were group meetings in which possible life events (broadly define to include pregnancy and elder care, to name just two) were discussed generally with the message being: don’t leave or pull back until you have to do so. In other words, lean so long as you want to -- and can.

Finally, we are now seeing lawsuits with “lean in” allegations.  They tend to focus on pay.  Some  blame Sandberg.

But pay equity has been a hot issue long before Sandberg wrote her book.  The book simply provides a short hand way for plaintiffs to assert their claims. Indeed, “Lean In” is now a “meme.” In other words, Lean In is a ubiquitous slogan that has become part of the lexicon and that includes in court cases. 

Rather than blaming Sandberg for addressing the “elephant in the compensation living room,” we should focus on avoiding these lawsuits by evaluating pay practices before employees challenge them.  Because a self-critical analysis is not shielded from discovery, you probably should work with your lawyer to ensure at least the analysis is protected by privilege.

Join me on SHRM’s WeKnowNext’s Next Chat on September 11, 2013 at 3 pm where the topic will be cross-gender mentoring. My very special guest will be the former CEO of SHRM, Sue Meisinger, who is currently a columnist, consultant and expert witness.

Follow me on twitter at @Jonathan__HR__Law.

This blog should not be construed as legal advice, as establishing an attorney-client relationship or as applying to specific factual situations. Nor should this blog be deemed as an endorsement of any specific recommendation made by Ms. Sandberg in her book or otherwise.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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