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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