If you look up Sheryl Sandberg on Google trends you will a notice a few key spikes–when she initially became the COO of Facebook in 2008, a story in the Christian Science Monitor on her making $30 million in 2011, a profile in Forbes on her path to being a billionaire in 2012, and most prominently, her book being published this week called Lean In. During this time period she also performed a TED talk which has been viewed over two million times, a commencement address at Barnard College viewed over one hundred thousand times, and has been profiled on a recent front page article on CNN.
Through each of these venues Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy for women’s careers has generated the most buzz. Like Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer who was recently in the media spotlight for disallowing employees to work from home, Sandberg has been both championed and criticized for wanting women to lean into their careers as much as possible until they actually have a decision to lean out. She emboldens women “don’t leave before you leave,” meaning put the pedal to the career metal completely until you forced not too due to having a family or other life decisions. In other words, Sandberg wants women to not plan for a future of taking a step back in their work lives when that future does not exist yet.
Like Mayer, Sandberg has received a great deal of criticism for her attitudes towards women’s career development–criticisms that usually highlight either a) her philosophy being simplistic or b) her philosophy coming from a place of privilege. Sandberg was raised in a privileged family, attended Harvard for undergraduate and graduate school, is married to the CEO of SurveyMonkey, and is able to give her two children the best child care humanly possible.
Sandberg’s vision for what would help women be more successful in their careers is certainly a biased one. Like anybody who is extremely successful, it is only natural for Sandberg to look at what she did or didn’t do to get there and make recommendations based on personal experience. But is seems that Sandberg’s success has actually hurt her in the eyes of critics. Maybe analogous to Anne Hathaway, Sandberg’s extreme career success combined with the fact that she leaves work at 5:30 every day makes her too unrelateable, and as such distorts her message.
So what do we want then from Sheryl Sandberg? To be a vocal advocate for what she believes is a path for women’s career success or to be an anonymous COO of a fortune 500 company who doesn’t feel it is her right to speak up? Personally, I love that Sandberg is getting the word out. In a society where men still dominate most of the power positions, I care less about whether Sandberg is privileged and more about her personal insights, however biased they may be. Sure, not all of us are going to have a 9,000 square foot mansion. But isn’t it just as good that the only COO you can probably name right now is a woman?