Will Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Help Women Advance in Our California Economy?

Michael Bernick
Former California Employment Development Department Director & Milken Institute Fellow

From the Imperial County through the Central Valley and north to Shasta, Del Norte and Modoc counties,  and especially in the coastal regions of our state, Californians will soon hear more of Ms. Sheryl Sandberg.

In the next week a massive public relation campaign will be launched to publicize Ms. Sandberg’s new book , Lean In, and her campaign for a new women’s movement. Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, seeks to be the leader of a movement to improve women’s  role in the economy, especially to help more women assume senior positions in business and finance.  

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 7.31.36 AMThe opening salvo of the campaign was a front article in the New York Times of Feb 22 entitled, “A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling”. Ms. Sandberg  will be interviewed on “60 minutes” and other major television programs. In anticipation, hundreds of major corporations, such as American Express, Google and Sony, have been contacted to be “launch partners” and distribute her materials.

If the response to the Times article is any indication, the “Lean In” campaign has an uphill battle. The article quickly attracted 665 comments, nearly all of them negative, indicating obstacles to overcome.

Many of the commentators note  Ms. Sandberg’s 9000 square foot house, personal worth in the hundreds of millions due to Google and Facebook, and extensive household staff.  Ms. Sandberg  is portrayed as having as much authority in lecturing other women on employment as have the Crawley women of Downton Abbey.

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 7.32.39 AM(Actually, this comparison might not be fair to Downton Abbey, whose upper class women do more than talk about employment. Lady Mary Crawley is determined that the estate as it modernizes not dispossess tenants, and  Mrs. Isobel Crawley runs her own job training agency for ex-prostitutes).

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 7.33.29 AMOther commentators focus on the “Lean In” consciousness raising groups, at the center of Ms. Sandberg’s program,  by which women come together to master the behavior and attitudes Ms. Sandberg regards as necessary for workplace advancement.   One commentator writes, “I am a single mom of a 3 year old and have a demanding job with an accounting firm. Assuming I had free time, the last place I would spent it is at a Lean In Circle meeting.”

Still other commentators  question Ms. Sandberg’s actual accomplishments in business and platform for lecturing others.  Ms. Sandberg has gone from one high-ranking position to another, at Treasury Department, at Google, and then at Facebook. In doing this, she has followed a timeworn path of “successful” men, but one not easily emulated by more than a tiny percentage of women or men.

To be sure, encouraging women to be more confident, to aim higher, to advocate an equal sharing of household responsibilities with spouses; all of these ideas are positive. As the father of three daughters, I welcome reading this.

But there is little new in these ideas, and many women and men are quietly working in California to put these ideas into practice. These advocates for women’s economic advancement are not seeking publicity as they operate skills upgrading projects, or serve as mentors, or try to help individual women entrepreneurs to succeed.Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 7.34.12 AM

According to press reports, Ms. Sandberg  hopes her book will spur a women’s movement similar to the movement launched by  Betty Friedan—and perhaps springboard  Ms. Sandberg into a political career as a major Democratic Party candidate. It may have these results: certainly Ms. Sandberg has the rolodex and resources to move into politics.

However, for twenty years before The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, Ms. Friedan was active in union activity and journalism, and active on a community level.  Betty Friedan did not come out of nowhere, did not come from the top down, did not start with a massive publicity campaign.

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