Last week, my friend Laine told me that she had the distinct pleasure of nearly getting knocked off her bike when Sheryl Sandberg prematurely opened the door of her large black Escalade. Thankfully, she swerved quickly and made it to class unharmed.
“Well, this time,” I told Laine, “I’m glad you didn’t lean in.”
As a disclaimer, that may be the funniest one-liner you’ll find in this article. But Laine sure didn’t appreciate it; in fact, she’s a huge Sheryl Sandberg fan and almost regretted swerving out of the way. This is not to say that I don’t like Ms. Sandberg – as an intelligent, beautiful female student with big dreams, I should be at every book signing, conference, Q&A, Japanese tea ceremony that Sandberg hosts.
But in reality, the most I’ve done is read “Lean In,” since it was a gift from my uncle and I had quickly found out that reading “Game of Thrones” wasn’t nearly as fun as watching the TV series.
To be sure, “Lean In” was interesting, and at times, informative. But on the whole, it was relatively uninspiring. I felt that the book could have been more aptly titled “Common Sense for the Average Businesswoman, Plus 10 Bonus Tips for How to Keep Your Hydrangeas Healthy While Taking Care of a Kid in the Middle of Your Hong Kong Business Trip.” In other words, it seemed like a glorified instruction booklet for ambitious businesswomen and not the “Feminist Manifesto” that the media likes to glorify.
Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of literature. But it’s always a little dangerous to use a personal success story as the basis for an entire movement. This tension was made very apparent two years ago, when Amy Chua published her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” eventually excerpted by the Wall Street Journal. I remember that, for a few weeks, it was a huge phenomenon, sparking furious debates via online forums, blog posts and more. Even my parents started looking at me a little suspiciously, wondering how I would’ve turned out had they been a little more feline in their parenting methods (my mom started growling when it came to going out at night – thanks for that, Ms. Chua). I greatly appreciated what Chua had brought to the table, but I found her generalization of Western vs. Eastern parenting to be surprisingly unscientific – uncharacteristic of a Yale law professor.
Sandberg makes similarly sweeping generalizations – her tendency to conflate female empowerment with ducking through loopholes in the corporate system seems inconsistent. In one chapter, Sandberg emphasizes, in ringing rhetoric, the necessity of equality in the workplace. But in the next, she elaborates upon the cartwheels women must perform in order to navigate through an antiquated corporate environment as nothing more than smart strategy. In other words, she vacillates between (1) denouncing social inequity and (2) manipulating the same social inequity to one’s advantage.
Sandberg made this dilemma – the tension between ideological equality and social reality – clear in the body of the book. But publicly, she chooses the ideological banner and, as a result, is hailed as an exemplar for all women – that is, one with a book promotion deal and a convenient personal spot in Facebook’s parking lot.
Without a doubt, Sandberg is a highly qualified example for so many inspired young women, and Amy Chua’s Harvard-bound children have work ethics that should be admired. Neither woman has any obligation to the world at large, and oftentimes, it’s necessary to break up social issues into more manageable strata – Western parents, young women in business, etc.
But overextending personal anecdotes is a poor way of introducing a general idea or assertion. They become inconsistent, and soon, the idea itself is defined by its exceptions – many of which contributed to the slow decline of the “Tiger Mother” piece.
Sandberg has earned her fair share of criticism as well. But she and her message have proven to be more resilient that I had expected, and I see the effects of her work here at Stanford, whether it’s for the upcoming Q&A with the woman herself or a campus organization with Sandberg’s name stamped on its latest event.
If I sound overly critical, I don’t mean to be. I’m just wary about the influence that powerful and successful women wield in today’s (much-needed) feminist movement. The way I see it, these women have the potential to do a lot of good for the women making 70 cents on the dollar, the women who are fired due to age or pregnancy, the women who struggle to receive adequate compensation for maternity leave. The experience that women like Sandberg have can be of great use. But no single experience should be chopped, sliced, diced into a memoir and sold as a manifesto.
Write your own manifesto and email it to Uttara at firstname.lastname@example.org.