I’ve heard that many of my old codger sisters from the ’60s are avoiding Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

For a long time, I did, too. The title is meek, the photo is Gloria Steinem Lite and the message lacks the boldness of, you know, Our Day, when tens of thousands protested in the streets, wrote our manifestos and opened our PRO-CHOICE SIGNUP tables in every downtown in America, or so it seemed.

Lean In book cover

Lean In book cover

True, we can’t claim huge victories four decades later — the ERA never passed, the military is practically a rape culture, abortion is even more despised and why we accept a Senate and House without 50% women is beyond me.

But some things did change, thanks to antidiscrimination and anti-harassment laws that still make a difference. The glass ceiling is breaking (thank you, Sheryl), and while many girls and women wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminists, there are good reasons for that, as Sheryl points out (see below).

Now here’s Sandberg encouraging women to make ourselves heard, but not in a massive way, mind you, not in a historic way, nor heaven knows an impolite way. Her much-praised advice is for each of us to “lean in” to whatever conversation is taking place and quietly, softly, say exactly what we mean. That’s it.

It sounds so obvious, so milquetoast. But now that I’ve read Lean In, I have to say that Sheryl Sandberg is one tough-minded sister. Tough and open-minded. Tough and not afraid to be emotional. But tough.

It hasn’t come easy. Sandberg recalls growing up with relentless self-doubt compared to her confident brother. She describes keeping her head down in the boy’s-club atmosphere of former jobs (Google, U.S. Treasury). She thought her generation was in the vanguard of change without having to declare anything. But by the time she got to Facebook, it struck her that “highly trained women were dropping out of the workforce in high numbers.”

Why was that? It’s because even the smartest, most powerful, well-educated and entitled female workers weren’t standing up for themselves.

Here’s an example: Sandburg was about to conduct a meeting when she realized that all the men had taken seats at the table while all the women sat in chairs around the wall. When she asked them to come forward and take their rightful place at the table, the women declined. As a metaphor (and it wasn’t a metaphor!), this kind of thing happens everywhere, says Sandberg. Men may throw all the obstacles they want in our path, and we do overcome many as a class, but in terms of being individually pro-active by “stating our truths,” women tend to lean back, out of the fray.


Demonstration for Equal Rights Amendment, 1972

That’s the part that got me. I remembered how safe it felt in the ’60s to hit the streets en masse, certain our numbers would make the case. Going back to the office or home was the risky part. To stand up for equality in a meeting or at the dinner table would single you out as a women’s libber, a militant, a man-hater or a (even then the word was hated) feminist. Why make things worse? Better to work quietly at our desk and change history by, you know, boring from within.

Well, look, Sandberg is saying, how far that got us: Want to know why women are 2nd class citizens (if we’re lucky) in every country of the world, why wars persist, why sex trafficking and child porno are out of control, why we can’t retain freedom of choice about our own bodies? It’s because historically women don’t fight back. Not in the way men do. Not at the dinner table or in a meeting. A few blips in history like the Women’s Movement mean nothing in the long run because power is not our obsession. We like it better when nobody fights.

So here’s a big question that few but Sandberg insist we ask: Why are women so “risk -averse” when it comes to fulfilling their own ambitions, in or out of the workplace? Is it political expedience or something in our nature? Men by contrast seem driven to compete, to stand up for themselves all the way up the corporate ladder and to be proud for each and every personal victory. Women would rather fade into the scenery than appear self-serving, immodest or power-hungry.

Gail Collins

Gail Collins

Just recently NYTimes columnist Gail Collins wrote about applying for a Macy’s credit card during the height of the Women’s Movement 40 years ago. The first question asked by the sales clerk was “What’s your husband’s name?” because women needed a male co-signer to get the card. “I wish I could tell you that I made a speech about equal rights and headed for the door,” Collins writes today, “but I just let (the clerk) fill out my application.”

Sandberg admits to avoiding the word feminist because she went through Harvard Business School at a time when gender equality was emphasized so convincingly that “my friends and I truly, if naively, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore. We mistakenly thought there was nothing left to fight for.” And, thanks to the media, “we accepted the negative caricature of the bra-burning, humorless, man-hating feminist.”

When it came to Sandberg’s own goals, “I figured if sexism still existed, I would just prove it wrong. I would do my job and do it well. What I didn’t know at the time was that … success has often been contingent upon a woman not speaking out but fitting in.”

Oh yes, we have to fit in. Everybody wants women to fit in. When she did succeed, Sandberg remembers people saying, “It must have helped that you were a woman,” meaning they thought no woman could make it on her own merits. Yet if a woman didn’t get a prestigious job, people would say she wasn’t as good as a man. This is “infuriating” for every woman who tries to accomplish anything, says Sandberg.


Sheryl Sandberg at TED 2010

We should all be grateful that when Sheryl Sandberg did speak out, at a now-famous TEDTalk called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” she said flat-out that women are “hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves.” The basic problem: “We consistently underestimate ourselves” and go around “feeling like a fraud” much of the time.

Her hundreds of examples are worth the price of admission. For instance, years after she had children, Sandberg kept secret the fact that she left the office at 5:30 p.m. every day to be home for dinner with her family. She called it “flextime” because she resumed work online after the kids were asleep. But she was also determined not to fall into the trap of workaholism so prevalent in Silicon Valley, and so disastrous for working parents. (And thank you, Jeff Bezos, for creating the Fascist Workplace of all time. More about this soon.)

Sandberg kept quiet about going home at 5:30 because “years of conditioning had taught me never to suggest that I was doing anything other than giving 100 percent to my job.” (And thank you, Steve Jobs, for leaving this inhuman legacy behind.) Sandberg has another vision, however — she wants people to “personalize their schedules” so they can free up their time, too, and actually live that enigma in the tech world, a balanced life.

Then one day at a talk, in answer to a question about women handling careers and raising children, she mentioned her practice of going home at 5:30, and that did it. Compared to the many strong positions Sandberg has made about women in the workplace, this one small admission dominated media interviews and workplace question-and-answer sessions for a long time. (Author Ken Auletta told her she “could not have gotten more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax.”)

Although Sandberg couldn’t shake “the weird feeling that someone was going to object and fire me,” in the long run, the debacle was worth it. Women in senior positions everywhere have insisted on determining their own schedules as one way to (as we used to say) “have it all” — raise children and manage careers at the same time. And be proud of both.

The point is that change can only happen, she writes “if we keep raising the issue ….We cannot change what we are unaware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Good heavens, that’s positively Steinemesque.

Gloria Steinem with community organizer Dorothy Pittman Hughes, c. 1971

Gloria Steinem with community organizer Dorothy Pittman Hughes, c. 1971

But let’s go back to the word “personalize.” The adversarial nature of today’s workplace is such that lawyers actually advise executives like Sandberg to never discuss personal matters like marriage and family while recruiting. Even asking a prospective exec if she has children could get the company sued, she’s been told.

But who wants to work in that kind of suffocating environment? Not many women, Sandberg realized as eminently hirable female execs were walking out the door instead of taking the job of their dreams. Sandberg finally decided the risk was worth it. She simply began asking women candidates if they’d like to talk about the realities of balancing families and work, and back they came.

So have men — feminist men, bless ’em — who Sandberg says want the kind of equality that society either didn’t allow or scowled at for centuries. These are men (not you, Jeff) who already know that “having it all” for women has to be a team effort, and they want to participate.

Women can change the world but don’t have to fight like men to do it, says Sandberg. We can, for starters, ask questions that are all-inclusive and that welcome different points of view. We can “speak our truth” without being combative and expect the world to listen. What we face is not just a leadership gap but a “leadership ambition gap.”

“If current trends continue,” she announced in 2010 at the Harvard Business School, “15 years from today, about one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to.”

A “dead silence (filled) the large auditorium,” Sandberg recalls. “If you want the outcome to be different,” she added, “you will have to do something about it.”

Time Magazine, March 18, 2013

Time Magazine, March 18, 2013

So, so right, Sheryl! Give me a poster and a march and I’ll go out and tell ’em!