Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, and the danger of the single story

“The No. 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home…” or so says Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who was profiled in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Sandberg has been traveling the speaking circuit for the last year or so, talking about what women need to do in order to finally achieve parity in the workplace. At TEDWomen, of the “high-income part of the workforce”:

Women are dropping out. Now people talk about this a lot, and they talk about things like flex time and mentoring and programs companies should have to train women. Today I want to focus on what we can do as individuals. What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell the women that work with us and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?

And at the Barnard commencement address:

Lean way into your career.  You’re going to find something you love doing, and you’re going to do it with gusto.  You’re going to pick your field and you’re going to ride it all the way to the top.

In essence, her message is tantamount to The American Dream for the 21st century woman: the problem is not sexism or racism or classism, the problem is not pathetic work-family policy at the federal level, the problem is not collective. The problem is you. In the Gospel of Sandberg, individual women must find partners who will share the load and negotiate fiercely, overcome their own guilt about not being able to be fully present parents, and “lean in” to their careers despite the lack of structural or systemic supports that might make that feel even slightly safe or rewarding.

Reading this profile of Sandberg, I was reminded of Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, incredible TED Talk, in which she talks about “the danger of the single story.” She explains, “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I actually think that Sandberg is smart and has great intentions with her message that women need to dig deep and stick to their own dreams. I  agree with her in many ways. Women do need to be strong in holding fast to their own vision of the kind of work that they want to do in the world. Women do need to find partners that will support that vision, and be accountable to their agreements about domestic work. Women do need to resist cultural scripts that tell them that they aren’t good mothers unless they martyr themselves to the cause, bake organic, homemade cookies for every occasion and avoid missing a single soccer game or choir performance along the way. This is part of the story. But it’s not the whole story.

The rest of the story is better told by women who didn’t grow up with lots of familial and social support, women who didn’t go to Harvard, women who weren’t mentored by Larry Summers, women with different definitions of success and leadership. Women like those we try to write about on Feministing every single day.

It’s just one more reminder that we are not a monolith and our struggle for continued parity is multi-layered. In part, it is a battle inside of our own hearts, our own heads, our most intimate relationships, our own homes, but it is also a fight outside–in courtrooms and boardroom and on the Senate floor. And as Adichie teaches us, perhaps the biggest fight of all is for a more complete narrative about who we are and what we want.

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  • Drusilla Roessle

    I’m so glad that this TEDtalk was posted, and that feministing continues to comment on the messages sent by women to women in forums like TEDwomen. Sanderbg’s message was definitely significant–learning to support other women in their work decisions, to encourage them to progress, to negotiate, and to help secure a sense of confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth in women in all industries and occupations is absolutely crucial to building a foundation for women to rely on as we navigate UP through the competitive and largely anti-woman marketplace. We need to feel we can be there and to see that we can be there in order to get there and start making necessary change. Her message is directed at individuals–it refuses to don the “victim-of-the-system” perspective that might focus more on employer discrimination, on the double-standard which she mentions, on sexual harassment.

    But Sandberg’s message, in courting the American individualist attitude, neglects and misses the crucial starting point for criticism–not women, but the entire marketplace structure, as Courtney discussed, which women’s efforts need to be set toward changing as we compel each other to rise. The greater structure of the capitalist workplace as we know it systematically disadvantages women AS women, for BEING women, in the workforce. Sandberg advises to young women, “don’t leave before you leave,” suggesting that women remain driven in the workplace before they decide to have children–in which she implies that all women who want children, want families, will inevitably HAVE to do. That’s because without regulations like legitimate parental leave options (for both moms and dads–paid, and for the amount of time actually necessary to raise a newborn to health), legitimate sick leave (more than a meager 5 days a year where moms and dads can take care of their sick children, and themselves), universal child care (available, affordable, accessible, and quality care for all families), flexible hours and increased pay for part-time work, and job training for women on-site, most women will not have the ability to actually make the personal decisions and carry through the personal motivation that Sandberg speaks of.

    The marketplace has been structured around the male-normative in a male-breadwinner/female-caregiver social order. Men, married or single, father or not, will remain the most effective, most efficient, highest paid, and most sought after workers unless we change the structure of the workplace not just to accommodate women and particularly women with children into the blueprint. The most successful women in our society should not have to be the ones who are most like the male-normative worker. The individualist message can surely be empowering and change cannot happen without individually empowered and inspired women, but we need to remember what exactly the structure we’re working within looks like so that we can remember, when those of us who do get to the top are at the top, to fundamentally change it.

    • honeybee

      You’ve hit on something really important but I’m not sure I agree with the last part.

      The marketplace is definitely structured to cater to a certain TYPE of worker – where in the current world there are more males who fit this type then females – but I don’t think it’s due to gender.

      The type of worker preferenced is essentially a worker who has minimal family (or other) obligations. I.e., single people or people without children or people who have a spouse that takes care of the majority of child rearing duties so the person can concentrate on their career.

      As I said, in our current society most definitely more men fit this bill then women. But it is possible that could change, and it isn’t done so much in favour of men, but rather in favour of capitalism which decrees that the more you can work someone and more you can get out of your resources the more money you will make.

      It will be very difficult if not impossible to change employers from preferring this type of employees, since they are cheaper and can do more work, who wouldn’t prefer such an employee. But if we can balance familial and other obligations better between men and women, more women will fit this type and be given an opportunity to be equally successful.

      My only concern with this balancing approach is that (we see this already), we will see that many or even most career minded individuals will choose to not have children, since in a world where parenting and other duties are equally shared between spouses, then anyone with children is disadvantaged to those who do not have children. We’re getting there already. If I look at my friends and colleagues many have chosen to either not have children or only have 1 because they don’t want to hurt their careers. Kinda makes me worry about the future where careers are seen as more important then family. So the only ultimate solution seems is if EVERYONE has children AND EVERYONE splits their duties equally, then employers have no choice in terms of who they preference. But this is not practical or possible.

      • inallsincerity

        (sorry I accidently clicked report comment instead of reply at first)

        I agree with everything in your comment except this “If I look at my friends and colleagues many have chosen to either not have children or only have 1 because they don’t want to hurt their careers. Kinda makes me worry about the future where careers are seen as more important then family. So the only ultimate solution seems is if EVERYONE has children”

        NOT everybody wants children or should have children. I see absolutely nothing wrong with a future full of people who are passionate about what they do and don’t feel like they have to give into the societal pressure to breed. Maybe it is a problem if someone WITH children values their career over their children. But I don’t see that as a problem at all for people without children. In fact, I would call your opinion a prejudice or at least an unwarranted value judgement. I also really don’t appreciate you equating having children with the word “family.” Families come in many varieties and do not need to include offspring at all.

        • honeybee

          Oh I absolutely agree with you. I think you slightly mis-understood.

          I wasn’t saying that not having children shouldn’t be an option, I was saying that as long as there are people out there who choose to not have children, there will always be a work imbalance (which will affect women more then men) because workers who don’t have children will always be prized / have a leg up on workers who do have children.

          Personally, as a parent myself, I’m perfectly happy to sacrifice some of my career in exchange for my child. Especially now being a parent I recognize that work is not the most important thing in life. Far from it actually. But this reality makes it so that women will unlikely ever be fully equal career wise with men, since due to pregnancy alone women will always have to miss more work then men where children are involved.

  • kristen

    Great post. I noticed that the NYer profile was written by a man. I read the NYer pretty regularly and sometimes when their male writers tackle “women’s issues” they lack nuance (e.g. “Funny Like a Guy”, April 11, 2011 in which Anna Faris admits to getting a boob job to get ahead in Hollywood and then laments its gender bias; the male writer ignores the contradiction).

  • Monica Turiac

    I think you are overly critical and unfair.

    She states from the start that ”Today I want to focus on what we can do as individuals.”, meaning there are other stories, but she’s gonna focus on this.

    You say that: ”In essence, her message is tantamount to The American Dream for the 21st century woman: the problem is not sexism or racism or classism, the problem is not pathetic work-family policy at the federal level, the problem is not collective. The problem is you.”

    However, I don’t see her message like that at all. I don’t think she’s pointing to a problem, I think she is offering a SOLUTION that YOU (or I for that matter) can use ourselves, in order to partially deal with a problem that is systemic.

    I absolutely enjoyed the part about succefull women not being as well liked as men. (Maybe you do hate her a bit for the success she has, and feel the need to contradict?)

    Also, the part of the Bernard speech where she talks about ”making choices without realizing that you make choices” was so true for me personally.