via webpronews—sheryl sandberg, harvard

E Pluribus Unum

I'm supposed to be on vacation — clearing my mind, unplugging, that sort of thing. In my downtime, against everyone else’s better judgment, I’ve been catching up on the many articles I'd flagged for future reading. Now, instead of zenning out in a pool, doing laps with my underwater mp3 player streaming, I feel as though my head is swimming from all of the Sandbergian-Mayerian posturing and theorizing. My copy of Lean In has yet to arrive, and I've already read countless opinions about and criticisms of the book, its author, and her peer.

Usually, I wouldn't suggest anyone start muddying the already murky waters with more critical litter until he or she had read the doctrine in question, and even then, I'd probably recommend waiting and doing some further pondering before weighing in. But in this instance, rather than talk about the thing itself, I prefer to look at the often contradictory commentary as a whole and, if purely for my own peace of allegedly-vacationing mind, clean out the metaphorical pool.

What's bugging me is the issue of individuation. Sandberg’s detractors, most of them, infuriatingly enough, of the female persuasion, seem to have a problem with her M.O. — one that implies each woman must consider herself a solo operative in the mission to obliterate the accursed glass ceiling. And yet, those same people find it necessary to pit Sandberg against Mayer in a way that is equally isolating and, in this case, detrimental.

Why the need to set them in opposition to each other, especially when one has actively stepped up to serve as an example for her sex (Sandberg) while the other has assertively decided against doing so (Mayer)? They are not fighting the same fight. Still, we treat them as the only two of their kind in the world who are representing womenfolk. Even worse, after comparing them to each other in some bizarre attempt to declare a new one-and-only heavyweight champion of the feminist world, we tear them both down for being inadequate emissaries, while — and here's what really stings — railing against the very idea of singular representation in the first place.

If anyone is adopting an individualist stance, it's Mayer. She has openly declared that she is not a feminist and made it clear that she doesn’t wish to engage in a related dialogue. Sure, it's disappointing that a woman in her position doesn't want to be part of the solution, or even the dialogue, but it's her perogrative. And if she is telling us she isn't involved, we have to stop judging her as though she is and move on.

As for Sandberg, we should put her relatively self-centered plan for advancement into a more logical context. We need to admit there's a Catch-22 and then start to look at how we can, together, with Sandberg's help, fix that.

As a writer, you are often counseled to “write what you know.” That's what Sandberg has done. She knows what it's like to be one of — if not the only — woman at the highest level of a major social networking corporation. Up there, where the air is thinner and the private jets woosh around, there are so few women that each becomes a token. Each one often feels that she has to push harder to reach and retain her position, and, what is most relevant here, that because she is the only one, the way to act on behalf of Team Vagina, is to act alone. How is one to fight collectively for the ascenion of women to the executive ranks if there is no collective up there, however small, to begin with? Isn't that the point? Aren't we trying to figure out how more women can break through to that stratosphere and increase our numbers at the top?

As Judith Shulevitz points out in her article for The New Republic, “Women’s opportunities have multiplied exponentially since 1982. Women now outnumber men at universities and in the middle management of many companies. But the conversation about feminism seems stuck more or less where it was 30 years ago ... What we are not talking about in nearly enough detail, or agitating for with enough passion, are the government policies, such as mandatory paid maternity leave, that would truly equalize opportunity. We are still thinking individually, not collectively.” Therefore, where we can start thinking collectively is at those unversities and in the middle management of those “many companies,” because there are enough of us to do that, and to try to push, from the bottom — or middle — for change. This same logic leads me to assume that the only way for us to apply pressure from the top is if those lone Sandbergs continue to acknowledge her spokesperson status and act accordingly, and to lobby for institutional change. (I realize that the second mandate is a controversial one in light of the fact that one of the major criticisms to be hurled at Sandberg is that she has ignored the participation — or lack thereof — of corporations in Operation Lean In. Anne-Marie Slaughter might be the most recent to have mentioned this oversight, although it’s hard to keep track of the complaints.)

I agree that corporations need to do their part to ensure, as Slaughter writes, “that caregivers still have paths to the corner office.” But Sandberg didn’t set out to write a guide for businesses to follow. The book isn’t targeted at institutions; it’s intended for individual women.

Meanwhile, Shulevitz doesn't hold out much hope for the efficacy of a lone she-wolf. She writes, “Sandberg cites research to back up her theory that women in management foster better work-life policies and help close the gender pay gap. I pulled up the most substantial paper in her footnote, however, and it concludes that the companies most likely to achieve a critical mass of female executives and therefore have more female-friendly workplaces are the ones that hold federal contracts —which means they’ve got to follow government affirmative action guidelines.” Once again, my logic leads me somewhere else. If we want more women to hold positions like Sandberg's, we need to influence public policy.

According to Shulevitz, “It’s an item of faith for the Davos Man — or Woman — that global leaders are more effective agents of social change than activists and bureaucrats.” I wouldn't be so quick to write it off as an “item of faith.” Money makes the world go 'round. Those with the most at their disposal are frequently able to get things done (isn't this why there has been such a brouhaha about the 1%?). It's exactly the men (and woman) at the Davos table who can get regulatory roadblocks removed, or find (legal) ways around them; they can strong-arm legislators into enacting new laws and amending outdated ones.

If there is just one female delegate there at Davos, then I'd rather her act alone than not at all because there was no "we" to be found. And if that same woman writes a book about how she thinks women can get to where she is, I would happily read it and surely take it with a grain of salt, but I wouldn't crucify her, since I'm not where she is. No one else can tell us how she got there, and what she thinks it takes. After all, she's the only one there.

The goal is to achieve critical mass, not mass criticism. If we're annoyed that there aren't more of us where Sandberg is, or we don't like her "individual" approach, the answer is not to riddle the messenger's body with bullets. At least she's trying to have a conversation, even if she's talking to herself. It's more than I can say for those who aren't talking at all (ahem, Mayer), or are using their words to criticize one of the few high-ranking, clout-holding speakers and representatives we've got from that rarefied world of boys and their techie toys.

The best we can do is join that conversation — if we disagree with one person's methodology, we can criticize constructively and try to offer alternative solutions. You know, lean in. Speaking of which, my book should be here at any moment, and, now that I've written all this, I am twice as obliged to read it. By the time I've finished, I may disagree with everything you've just read. That's doubtful, though.

And if I did change my mind, it'd be entirely beside the point.