One would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge that Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has had a spectacular business career, the kind that is often described as affirming the claim that America is a land of golden opportunity.
The Harvard-educated Sandberg is also a powerful symbol of the rise over the past four decades of women to the highest levels of the American workplace: as senior executives of Fortune 500 corporations and small businesses alike, presidents of major colleges and universities, heads of federal agencies, governors of states, mayors of cities and towns, and even contenders for the presidency of the United States.
And yet, the very achievements of women like Sandberg have simultaneously underscored the reality that women are still under-represented in the society’s decision-making positions – a fact that has raised trenchant questions why there aren’t more women filling more of those niches at the high levels of the American workplace – and the middle levels, too.
Spurring a more effective search for answers to those questions – and solutions to the problems behind them – is the purpose of Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”
Its major point is that women who want careers in business, higher education, government service, the nonprofit sector, and so on need to be more assertive inside their place of work in building their careers.
Sometimes citing what she says were mistakes she made in her career, Sandberg repeatedly contends women need to become more effective in taking on responsibility for “big” projects, in touting their own achievements, becoming less risk-averse in seeking assignments, and in learning how to better negotiate for higher positions, and greater compensation and benefits.
She asserts that too many women, both those who are married with children and those who are not, have surrendered – often for understandable reasons – to the barriers set against them. Sandberg uses the metaphor of a group holding a discussion around a conference table to declare that women as a group need to not shrink back but “lean in” to the conversation and make sure that their voices and ideas are heard.
By dint of her highly-visible position and her smooth rise to it, Sandberg’s book set off a controversy even before its official March publication date. Much of the pre-publication discourse focused on whether Sandberg was, in effect, downplaying or completely ignoring the impact of discrimination against women in the workplace and playing a “blame-the-victim” game against women.
Does that criticism sound familiar?
Doesn’t it sound like the debate over the use of and the notion behind the phrase “no excuses” that’s long been part of the discourse about the status of Black Americans? Indeed, just last month some commentators charged that in urging graduates of historically-Black Morehouse College to adopt a “no excuses” attitude about pursuing their future careers, President Obama was ignoring the continuing persistent discrimination in the society.
But, just as the criticism of the president’s use of “no excuses” was incorrect, anyone who gives Lean In even a cursory reading will quickly come to the conclusion that on that charge she is decidedly not guilty.
In fact, Sandberg’s book identifies both the overt and deliberate barriers and the implicit, institutional obstacles and innumerable cultural stereotypes and societal obstacles that impede women as a group from achieving their full potential as participants in the workplace. Her argument is powerful and accessible, and the scholarly studies and other materials she references in the footnotes are invaluable in grounding Sandberg’s contentions and advice, and offering a guide to those who wants to go even deeper into the issues she discusses.
But I consider Lean In an important addition to the discourse about opportunity in America for three additional reasons.
The first reason is that its discussion of how gender discrimination operates offers a sharp comparative perspective on how structural barriers, cultural stereotypes and “benevolent racism” in the workplace operate against Black Americans and other Americans of color.
Secondly, Lean In also underscores that although there are many similarities about how workplace discrimination prevents Blacks and women alike from realizing their full potential; the discourse about the two is almost always conducted on a deeply segregated basis.
This stems in part from the reality that, although, as Sandberg acknowledges, women of color face the same gender-based difficulties as White women, their situation is then compounded by the facts of race and color.
Finally, Sandberg perhaps could have made more of an effort to cross that particular racial line. But in terms of what she has accomplished – and left for others to pursue further – I consider that a small flaw. For what she makes clear is that, on both the gender and racial fronts, American society is still just in the era of advanced tokenism and that there’s a lot more “leaning in” we all have to do if we want to get beyond it.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.