Is the Advice for Women in Sheryl Sandburg’s ‘Lean In’ Elitist or Universal?

March 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In her book "Lean In," Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg urges women to not shy away from ambition and leadership. Judy Woodruff talks to Katha Pollitt of The Nation, "The Black Snob" blogger Danielle Belton and Jody Greenstone Miller, CEO of Business Talent Group, about the debate over how women should approach their careers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the strong reaction and discussion that’s been sparked online, in the media, at home, and at the office by Sheryl Sandberg’s new book.

It’s one of the perpetual questions and dilemmas asked about the American workplace. More than half of the nation’s labor force is female. Yet only 14 percent of executive positions are staffed by women. So why are there so few women at the top? That’s one of many issues Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, takes on in her new book, “Lean In.”

Sandberg discussed that Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes” as part of her media tour.

SHERYL SANDBERG, Facebook: I think we’re stalled. And I think we need to acknowledge that we’re stalled, so that we can change it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the biggest names in the Silicon Valley tech world, Sandberg addresses issues on pay, gender stereotypes, and the work-family juggle that working mothers and fathers face. She argues women are too often prone to undercutting their own career potential.

SHERYL SANDBERG: They start leaning back. They say, oh, I’m busy. I want to have a child one day. I couldn’t possibly, you know, take on any more, or I’m still learning on my current job. I have never had a man say that stuff to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And she says too few women are willing to promote themselves.

SHERYL SANDBERG: I’m not suggesting women aren’t ambitious. Plenty of women are as ambitious as men. But I am saying — and I want to say it unequivocally and unapologetically — that the data is clear that when it comes to ambition to lead, to be the leader of whatever you’re doing, men/boys outnumber girls and women.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some consider the book a kind of feminist manifesto, but her writings and interviews have spawned a flurry of news headlines across the media world, a major criticism, that Sandberg, a multimillionaire, Harvard graduate, protégé of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and one-time executive at Google, is too much a part of the elite to provide advice that’s useful for many working women.

SHERYL SANDBERG: I am not saying that everyone has the resources or opportunities I have. I’m not saying that everyone’s husband is going to wake up tomorrow, read a book and start doing his share. We need to help women own the power they have, learn how to negotiate for raises, get the pay they deserve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On ABC’s “Nightline,” Sandberg said even she realized that she needed to be more aggressive on her own behalf when she was first offered the Facebook job.

SHERYL SANDBERG: It was my brother-in-law who said to me, what, are you kidding? No one takes the first offer. Go negotiate. And I said, well, if I negotiate, maybe he won’t like me. Maybe I won’t get the job. It won’t work out.

And he said to me, why are you going to take this job and make less than any man would take? And that was motivating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sandberg insists she is not letting employers off the hook. But her emphasis is on motivating women to help themselves by thinking and acting differently.

We dive deeper now into the reaction with perspectives from three women who have written on this. Katha Pollitt is a well-known writer, essayist, poet, and critic who writes a column in The Nation. Danielle Belton is the creator and editor of a blog on pop culture and politics called The Black Snob. And Jody Greenstone Miller is a businesswoman who has served in senior roles in both the private sector and government. She is the founder and CEO of Business Talent Group, a consulting firm.

Welcome to you all.

Katha Pollitt, you had a mostly positive reaction to what Sandberg has written. What does she bring to this long-simmering discussion?

KATHA POLLITT, Author/Essayist: Well, I think she brings optimism.

I think that’s so important. I think a lot of the writing and conversation about women and work, it’s a real downer. It’s, oh, you will have a baby and then you won’t be able to come back. And, oh, God, you’re going to feel guilty all the time. It’s really terrible. Your husband isn’t going to help you. You probably won’t get that job anyway.

And, you know, she brings to it sort of like, well, why don’t you do what you can to make sure that that terrible fate doesn’t befall you? Make sure you and your husband are on the same page about equality in the home. Don’t marry a man who isn’t equal. Be on the lookout for things like — that drag down your own confidence like the impostor syndrome. Who doesn’t have that? I’m a fraud and soon people are going to find out.

I think it’s a very — it’s all framed in a very positive way. I think that’s what people like about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Danielle Belton, you were saying to us that you think she has useful advice for a certain group of women, but that she doesn’t reach a broad — a broader group of working women.

DANIELLE BELTON, The Black Snob: Well, yes.

When she’s talking about how there’s not enough women leaders in some of these CEO positions, which specific women is she referring to? Often who fills these positions come from the Ivy League system. They come from the elite. They come from the upper echelons of society.

She’s not necessarily talking about women who came from my alma mater, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. You know, it seemed like she’s asking women of the elite to make a choice and to choose the harder path by pursuing these higher-level positions.

The problem is she wrote a book that was for all women, as opposed to narrowing the focus there. And so I feel like that’s where a lot of this criticism and confusion is coming from, because a lot of things she says make sense if she is talking about her own peers. It doesn’t necessarily make sense if she’s talking about all women in general, because the plight of working-class, poor and middle-class women is demonstrably different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jody Greenstone Miller, how do you see that?

JODY GREENSTONE MILLER, Business Talent Group: Well, to me, everything Sheryl says makes sense. And I think people should listen to her.

I think if we listen to her, however, we will not solve the problem that she herself so eloquently states, which is how do we get to a world where half of our leaders are women? And I believe if that’s our goal, which I think it should be, the problem is women aren’t leaning in not because they don’t know how to, but because they don’t like the world they’re being asked to lean into.

And until we really take steps to acknowledge that and address that, I think we’re going to be having this conversation 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying employers have responsibility here, too?

JODY GREENSTONE MILLER: I think employers and our culture. I think it’s about what kind of leaders we want.

Do we want leaders only who go through this particular path? Or do we want to create other routes to leadership that allow for a diversity of people, broadly speaking, not just women, but men and women, to get to leadership positions with a different set of choices than Sheryl and her peers are making?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Katha Pollitt, what about these points that there is a role for the work — for employers, the folks who are doing the hiring and the promoting, and that there is perhaps a swathe of women who are left out of what Sheryl Sandberg is writing?

KATHA POLLITT: Well, the first point I think is absolutely true.

The main responsibility for changing this situation cannot rest on individual women. There are plenty of women who have leaned in very hard and are just invisible to people who do not want to employ women. They may think they do, but each individual woman, somehow, she’s not the right woman.

That’s why I would place much more emphasis than Sheryl Sandberg does on things like affirmative action, anti-discrimination suits, quotas. Do you know that the only countries where women are gaining in representation in legislatures are countries that have quotas of how many women should be there and parties that have quotas of how many women candidates they put up?

If things keep going this way in America, it is going to be 70 years before we get to parity in Congress. That’s a long time. The second point, I think, is also sort of true. But, you know, I’m not in the running to be a CEO. I’m a writer. I was a freelance writer and an editor at The Nation for most of my life. And I do find some of the things she says quite useful.

I think, for example, if you’re a schoolteacher, why is it that the principal is usually a man? A schoolteacher can become a principal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me stop you there and come back to Danielle Belton.

What about this point from Katha Pollitt that, yes, employers do have a role, but there is something useful for all women to take away from this about how they view themselves in the work — in a work role?

DANIELLE BELTON: Well, the part of the book that I felt that really personally resonated for me was the one about women and confidence, women and being able to clearly state their power, because often women are socialized to really downplay their gifts. They’re socialized to be polite. I often call it apologizing for existing.

It’s like you have gotten this great job. You do a great job at it. You work very hard and diligently. But then when someone asks you to speak up, you still have this fallback urge to downplay all the work, the hard work that you have done. But you don’t say, “May I please have a raise?” You ask and demand for that raise.

And so that portion of the book, I feel, is applicable to lots of women in the career and in the work force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re also saying — and I will turn to Jody Greenstone Miller on this — that there are women who really are never going to get to a point of aspiring to be a CEO, and yet they want to be paid fairly for what they’re doing and they want to have equal opportunity.


I mean, I think there’s no question women should be paid fairly. They should have equal opportunity. I think the thing that concerns me about this advice is, in and of itself, I don’t think it will solve the ultimate problem, which is, until we have different paths that allow women and men, for that matter, to really rise to leadership levels with different models, models that don’t mean you have to devote a very, very large percentage of your life to your work, I think you will always have this issue.

No matter how well women represent themselves, no matter how much confidence they have, the number of women who will choose to play in that league are going to be few and far between.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, you write about how employers could break up the workweek, split up job assignments, have people be available even if they’re not on the job literally 40, 80 hours a week.

Katha Pollitt, what about the role of men in all this? Are we focusing too much attention on how it’s women’s responsibility to get this right?

KATHA POLLITT: Yes, I think we are.

I think, you know, men are half the people. And men run most of these businesses and workplaces where women are not doing as well as they should.

Women — and men are the fathers. And I think one of the nice things about this book, I have to say, is that she expresses the desire that men do better in this regard in a very positive way. I mean, don’t fathers want to spend more time with their children? I think they do. Aren’t fathers very important parts of their children’s development and upbringing? Yes, they are.

So let’s have a world where men can do that. I mean, it should be as normal for a man to stay home with children as a woman to stay home with children. And, ideally, everybody would do half and half.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly to our other two guests, Danielle Belton, what is the next thing that needs to happen for women, if they are going to have a larger share of the pie when it comes to work opportunity?

DANIELLE BELTON: It really boils down to family leave. I mean, women are trying to create this work-life balance. And until business accommodates that, it is always going to be an issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Jody Greenstone Miller?

JODY GREENSTONE MILLER: I think we have to open our minds and imagine that we can have a CEO who is working three days a week and structuring the world around her to accommodate that in a way that it will be good for her and good for the business and good for the men. And that’s what I think we should aspire to do.

And, by the way, Sheryl is in a good position to try to do this. So, I would love to see her try to institute some of that at Facebook.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we thank you all for being with us.

Jody Greenstone Miller, Danielle Belton, and Katha Pollitt, thank you.