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Category: Feminism, Economy, Great Women

Message to Sandberg: Lean forward

February 9, 2012

In the wake of the news that Facebook’s Number Two, Sheryl Sandberg, might become a billionaire and therefore one of the richest self-made women in America after the company goes public, the New York Times featured a story about her growing power as a role model and inspiration for women’s advancement.

I really get that.  I recall reading an article about Sandberg a few years back and thinking, “I wish I had known a woman like her when I was growing up.”  The only visible women in my 1940’s childhood were movie stars—not exactly the kind of role model I had in mind.

Powerful women have sometimes been reluctant to use their positions to speak about the importance of women in leadership, probably assuming it will affect their relationships with powerful men.  Sandberg is changing that by example.  In addition, she is attracting more women to leadership in technology fields, a place where few women stay, much less lead.  So I give her enormous kudos.

Sandberg’s message about women not “blaming men” and taking responsibility for their own careers is a legitimate one.  Encouraging women’s ambition with phrases like “lean forward” and “keep your foot to the pedal” has been a position that many of us have advocated for decades. But there’s nothing like a visible future billionaire to hammer the point home in the most visible of ways.

My only hesitation about her message is that it is about “fixing women,” a stand-alone strategy that I find exhausting and only part of the picture.  I wish Sandberg—admired by both genders—would alter her tactic and encourage men to “lean forward” as well, but for them it would be leaning forward as sponsors of worthy women.

Truthfully, I look into the world and I see that women have leaned so far forward that it’s a wonder they can still stand.  The message should not just be about our taking responsibility; it should also have a concurrent message about the accountability of organizations and (often) the men who run them as mentors and allies.

My colleagues and I, without blaming men, have read (and written) scores of books, created institutions, and had training (and trained others) in every skill of leadership.  We have led Washington marches and marched into the offices of politicians on behalf of women’s power and leadership. We have led living wage campaigns for decades and lobbied (unsuccessfully) for adequate childcare and choice—the kind of real change that women who aren’t wealthy would need if they ever expected to put the pedal to the metal.  It is not just hard work that we need: We must have essential changes in work, family and political systems if ordinary women ever expect to truly lead alongside men.

What we need is for women like Sandberg to lean ever further forward.  I love that she talks about more choices for men, like paternity leave, but I would be very grateful if she’d also talk about men “fathering” organizations that are truly fair in all their systems of hiring, sponsoring and promoting women.  There is no need to blame anyone, man or woman; we have all the data necessary for a solid business case in favor of diversity and women’s leadership.

Sandberg, beginning with Facebook, could push for women on her all-male corporate board, for instance—especially considering the high use of Facebook by females.  I know she doesn’t have total control of this, but she is the strongest advocate I can imagine for such change. 

I’m sure Sandberg’s speeches are attended by men as well as women, but I think it would be fabulous if she addressed the males in the audience directly (and maybe she does), reminding them of the need to lift as they rise—and not just to lift other men.

Pay inequality for women is also an area we still cannot ignore.  Catalyst has found that women who graduate from the most prestigious schools with MBAs make less than their male counterparts, and they rarely catch up.

Most importantly, please go to the hill and lobby for comprehensive child care legislation.  I know Sandberg is an advocate for parental leave for men as well as women. But both parents struggle to work at a level that will move them forward while still staying true to their family ideals and the needs of their kids.  It is wickedly hard, and until we move legislation forward, child care will continue to be a stumbling block mostly to women rising to the highest levels in our government and our businesses.

Sandberg is one of the best champions of women in the world.  Maybe, when she’s done with Facebook, she can run for public office and make the true, permanent changes we need for the emergence of the next Sheryl Sandberg.

Marie Wilson is a SheSource expert.  If you are a journalist and are interested in interviewing Marie please contact SheSource.