by Barry Edelson
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It's a Man's World

And if Sheryl Sandberg has her way, it always will be

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."
—George Bernard Shaw
"I don't think being pushy or bitchy or tough, or however you want to characterize it, is a bad thing. New Yorkers want somebody who's going to get things done."
—NYC mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, case in point



Since this is the Internet, you really have no way of knowing if the person writing this is a man or a woman. To be honest, after reading Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In", I'm not so sure myself. Reading her account of how women suffer in the workplace, and her descriptions of insensitive bosses who can't be relied on to put their employees' best interests at heart, I could not help but wonder whether I am actually a 20-something Ivy League co-ed trying to navigate the treacherous waters of corporate America. Since Sheryl (I feel confident about calling her Sheryl, since I read the book and know her now as well as anyone) thinks that men have no problem projecting self-assurance and believing in their own abilities — often without justification — while women are quivering masses of anxiety who live in constant fear of being exposed as frauds — even though men are equally as phony — I gradually became convinced that, like most women, I am also held back mainly by my own reluctance to "lean in" and advance my career in the ways that men usually do.

We should all be really grateful to Sheryl for explaining the obstacles that women face. You see, for years I've read about issues like prostitution, rape, ritual circumcision and domestic violence, and thought that these kinds of terrible things are the most serious problems that women around the world have to confront in their lives. Even though a majority of women on the planet live in countries where it isn't illegal to be sexually assaulted by your husband, and women, girls and even female babies are commonly murdered with impunity in a lot of places, after reading Sheryl's book I understand that these bad things are not as important as America not having enough female CEO's or members of Congress. Sheryl doesn't actually say that these other things aren't serious problems. How could she, when she doesn't say anything about them at all? It's refreshing to see a woman with her background — Harvard grad, chief of staff at the Treasury Department, top-ranking executive at Google and now chief operating officer at Facebook — throw her weight behind the highest hurdle of all: the one that stands between highly educated, successful women and the top line on the company letterhead. For someone who works so hard that she hardly has time to spend with her own kids, it is really admirable that Sheryl is putting so much into this critical women's struggle.

She has a really inspiring message: "I hope that you — yes, you — have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it. Women all around the world are counting on you." Think about it: sex slaves and abused wives and the chronically unemployed are all counting on corporate wannabes like you and me to make their lives better by scratching our way to the top. It's quite a burden, but if Sheryl thinks we're up to it, who are we to disagree?

Ok, so now you're probably thinking: Sheryl must be some kind of spoiled elitist brat who doesn't appreciate her own success. That's where you're wrong. You just don't understand the disadvantages she had to overcome. That's right, Sheryl comes from an underprivileged background. In fact, she starts the book by talking about her grandmother, who couldn't pursue her own education because she was a girl. Her mother gave up her own career ambitions to be a homemaker. It's true that her family sounds as if it was actually pretty well off. Her father is a doctor who was able to afford to send her to Harvard, and she admits that her parents' expectations for her and her brother were the same. But just knowing that your own mother and grandmother had to live like second-class citizens — very comfortable ones, but still second-class — must be a terrible burden to live with.

Can you imagine how hard it must have been for her, with her history, to go to Harvard and work in such places as the executive branch of the federal government and leading high-tech companies? I heard someone compare Sheryl to that president, the one they used to say was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. Well, that may sound clever, but for people like us who strike out over and over again and have to drag our asses back to the dugout in shame, we have no idea how hard it must be to get in from third base to home. If you haven't walked in those very expensive shoes, how can you judge?

It Takes a Pair

So what does Sheryl say women have to do to get ahead? Mainly, she thinks they have to be more like men. Well, she doesn't say that exactly, but that's what it comes down to. For instance, she talks about how, starting in school, girls are less likely than boys to interrupt others to make their point. Even when they raise their hands, girls are less likely to get called on. "If we want a world with greater equality, we need to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up. We need institutions and individuals to notice and correct for this behavior by encouraging, promoting and championing more women. And women have to learn to keep their hands up, because when they lower them, even managers with the best intentions might not notice." This reminded me of an interview with another famous woman, Madeline Albright, who said that when she taught seminars in graduate school, she had to encourage her female students to jump into a class discussion, otherwise the boys would dominate and the girls would never get a word in. When I first heard that, I remember thinking: so what needs to happen is not that boys should be taught to be more civilized, but that the girls should be taught to behave more like rude bastards? I was always iffy on this point until I read Sheryl's book. Now it's clear to me that one of the biggest problems in this world is that people aren't nearly aggressive and obnoxious enough.

Sheryl also thinks that women have to start attributing their success to their own abilities and hard work. She complains that when Facebook went public, "The New York Times ran an article that kindly reminded me — and everyone else — that I had 'been lucky' and 'had powerful mentors along the way'." The reason that's really mean is not so much because they hardly ever say that about a male executive, but because it reminded Sheryl that she thought this way already. "The Times didn't say anything that I had not already told myself a thousand times. At every stage of my career, I have attributed my success to luck, hard work, and help from others." So it's not that men aren't lucky or don't get help from others, they just don't acknowledge it to themselves or to other people. What women have to do then is stop being so gracious: stop letting on that somebody else offered you a helping hand or that luck played any part in your success, even when everyone knows it.

Sheryl says, "I realized that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming … Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others." This is where the message gets a little confusing, because the whole point is that women have to learn to make it on their own. But then she writes this long chapter — I mean, a really long chapter — about mentors and how you should definitely have one. (If you hang in there and keep reading, it will make sense eventually.) She goes on and on about how big a difference it made to her career to have these great mentors, but she also says that women should believe that the main reason for their success is their own wonderfulness, just as men do, and not put so much emphasis on having big people look out for you. So it wasn't luck that Sheryl's advisor on her thesis at Harvard happened to become a cabinet secretary in Washington and took her along for the ride. Or that she was able to use the connections she made in government to call Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, to ask for a meeting and line up her next job. I mean, I'm sure he would have taken time out of his insanely busy schedule to do that for anyone. No, it's not luck, it just comes from having the right mentor.

If that's something you can plan, tell the rest of us where to sign up! Maybe Sheryl will be my mentor! Well, if that's what you're hoping for, too, slow down, because it's not going to happen. Sheryl says flat out that she isn't going to be a mentor to anyone who is reading her book or going to her lectures, because that's not how it works. You can't just pick a mentor out of a hat because you think that person might wind up as a big-wig in D.C. and be helpful to your career. It's a relationship that just happens between people, like chemistry. I admit this is a big disappointment, because until I read that part of the book I was all set to send Sheryl an e-mail and ask her to be my mentor. I was certain she wouldn't refuse me. I mean, she's all famous and powerful now and she could really do me a good turn, and it doesn't seem fair that just because I didn't go to Harvard or work at Facebook that I'll never have a chance to develop that kind of relationship with her. Bummer.

Mentor or no mentor, I now realize that I've had this whole male-female thing wrong. I always thought that most women, like most men, were put off by the behavior of ambitious people and just didn't want any part of it. The only difference between men and women is that maybe women are more likely than men to doubt whether they even want to work somewhere where callousness and rudeness are rewarded and civility counts for nothing. But reading about the way Sheryl has worked with some of the nastiest people on earth has really opened my eyes. You see, I always thought that the key to avoiding trouble with men, whether it's your boss or your boyfriend, was to steer clear of assholes altogether. That's easier said that done, of course, because some guys come on all charming and sweet but turn out to be psychopaths. But Sheryl seems to be saying that since some of these whackos can really help you, it's stupid to stay away from them. After all, the two bosses that she writes about the most — Larry Summers and Mark Zuckerberg — are not only sons-of-bitches, they're actually famous for being sons-of-bitches. Now I realize that if you know what you're getting into right up front, there's no surprise later, like when the boss you thought was Atticus Finch at your interview turns out to be Hannibal Lecter. The trick is not to stay away from temperamental bastards, but just to avoid charmers who are hiding their true nature.

It's too bad that Sheryl doesn't say anything about how she handled those guys. She never lets on that she even noticed that her bosses were seriously unpleasant to almost everyone, so I guess she's just being really loyal and playing dumb.

Working with no-nonsense types taught her a lot. She tells a story about when she first became chief of staff at the Treasury Department. She was only in her twenties at the time and had never had a job remotely like it, so she obviously didn't have any idea how much she had to learn. As she was calling around to the heads of the different agencies in the department to introduce herself, she started out by asking them for things that her boss wanted. She got her head handed to her by Ray Kelly, who is now New York's chief of police but was then in charge of the customs service.   "[expletive], Sheryl, just because I'm not in Larry Summers's [expletive] thirty-year-old brain trust doesn't mean that I don't know what I'm doing. If Secretary Summers wants something from me, tell him to [expletive] call me himself." This would have thrown a lot of people for a loop, but after thinking about it for a while, Sheryl figured out that making demands of someone you have never met is probably not a good way to start a new relationship. How was she supposed to know?

OMG – Sheryl is the female
Mark Zuckerberg!


And then it suddenly hit me. OMG — Sheryl is the female Mark Zuckerberg! That's why she gets along so well with these guys! Think about it: she has miserable social skills, she seems oblivious to other people's severe character flaws, she is seriously irony challenged and doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor. Who does that sound like? By her own definition, she is a "nerd" and a "geek". She openly acknowledges that everyone has always thought she was "bossy", beginning when she was a little girl. While many people would be repelled by the behavior of the creeps she has had to deal with, Sheryl took to this high-powered life like a fish to water.

After realizing this, the rest of the book made more sense. Like the story she tells of being pregnant when she worked at Google, where there were no reserved parking spaces for any employees, including executives. She sometimes had to walk a very long distance from her car to her office, which became increasingly difficult and uncomfortable as the months wore on. It occurred to her that there ought to be parking spaces reserved for pregnant women close to the building, and when she brought it up to her bosses they agreed right away. She then wondered why nobody ever thought of it before, and concluded that if more women had made it to the top of the company, problems like this would get solved more easily. Surely other women must have suffered in silence, because "maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed." Well, at least problems affecting women who are in a position to do something about them would get solved more easily.

There's another really interesting story from the book, which she has told a lot in interviews. When she was offered her current job at Facebook, she was about to accept the offer but was encouraged by her brother-in-law to negotiate for a higher salary. "His point was simply that no man at my level would consider taking the first offer." That's right, no man with Sheryl's education or experience would have settled for a penny less than he could get. The rest of us obviously just don't appreciate the position she was in. So when trying to understand the obstacles women face, and applying solutions that work for all women, it's important not to fall into the trap of comparing people who are on different "levels". Women can benefit from thinking about what people from backgrounds like Sheryl's would do, but they should never forget that they probably wouldn't change places with her even if they had the chance.

"This book is not a memoir"

Still, Sheryl is dogged by accusations of being "elitist", and her book has been criticized for being irrelevant to most working women. This is so not fair. It isn't reasonable to expect one person, even someone as wonderful as Sheryl, to tackle all the world's problems at once. It's only one book. I'm sure she has lots of answers to lots of questions, if only she had the time to think about them.

For instance, I'm sure she could shed some light on a story I heard on the radio recently about people living on disability. They interviewed a bunch of unemployed people in small towns where it was just impossible to find work, including one woman who had lost her job and couldn't find another, and eventually just gave up. She ended up on Social Security, not because her health problems are so severe that she can't work at all, but because, like many of the 14 million Americans on permanent disability, her unemployment benefits have run out, and she has reached a certain age, and has a low level of education, and lives in a place where the factories have all closed, and she is unlikely to find a job ever again no matter how hard she looks. The interviewer asked her whether she had ever considered some other kind of work that wasn't as physically demanding, and she thought about it a really long time before answering. Finally she said that she could probably do the job that the woman at the Social Security office does, the one who makes decisions about who qualifies for disability and who doesn't. At first it sounded as if she had become bitter and angry and wished that she had the power to turn other people down, but after a while it became clear that she simply couldn't think of another job where she could sit in a chair. That's right, she had literally never seen anyone else work who wasn't standing on her feet all day. All of the other chronically unemployed people who were asked the same question had pretty much the same response: they honestly couldn't think of anything else they could do to make a living.

It's too bad Sheryl won't be my mentor, because I am dying to ask her how "leaning in" is going to help that lady.


April 27, 2013


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.