Sheryl Sandberg’s Message on Feminism Unrealistic

Sheryl Sandberg presents a TED Talk at TEDWomen in Washington, D.C. in 2010 entitled Why we have too few women leaders. Photograph from TED.com.

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[I]’ll be the first to admit it: I think Sheryl Sandberg is a pretty cool woman.

The 42-year-old Washington native is the chief operating officer at Facebook and is one of the few people in the world who can boast about sharing an office with Mark Zuckerberg. She’s also the genius behind Facebook’s profitability and is credited with implementing ads on the site that have earned the company more than $4 billion in revenue in 2011. In the past, she worked for Google and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She’s one of Fortune Magazine’s 50 most powerful women in business.

Yet, Sandberg seems to earn more press as a poster girl for corporate feminism than a successful businesswoman.

In December 2010, Sandberg spoke at the annual TEDWomen conference about the lack of women in the corporate workforce. In a nutshell, Sandberg told the audience of businesswomen to take responsibility for their own successes. The only people to blame for gender inequality in the workforce, she says, are women themselves.

Feminism, in Sandberg’s eyes, is a battle women should fight internally.

The crowd clapped. They nodded their heads in agreement. They were quick to accept her message. It was like a scene straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Did they even think twice about what she said?

Yes, it’s all fine and dandy to urge women to fight for their own empowerment and successes in the corporate world. But is any of that really possible? Can Sandberg, or anyone for that matter, defy the laws of feminism?

Perhaps Sandberg’s message for the corporate women of the world is just a little unrealistic.

It’s worth saying I still think Sandberg is cool for speaking out on the issue. In today’s world, engaging in dialogue about the inequality of women in the workplace is imperative. Gender inequality should be a thing of the past. In fact, it’d be really awesome to live in the world Sandberg paints in her TEDTalk, where 50 per cent of women are corporate executives. But that still hasn’t happened.

And if we’re being realistic here, it’s going to take more than a gung-ho attitude for that to happen at all.

Feminism is about more than women feeling empowered. It’s about achieving equality. While that entails women taking on more responsibility in the workplace, it also calls for a change in men as well. In fact, feminism calls for a shift in the way society works.

If women are going to be “sitting at the table” alongside men in the corporate world, men need to be sitting at the kitchen table alongside women in the domestic world. In both situations, a mutual respect needs to be established. Gender roles need to be abolished.

It’s not just women that need to be motivated. Men have just as much of a responsibility to empower women as women do themselves.

Men are also just as responsible for personal and family matters. Sandberg talks about marriage and raising a family, and balancing the two with work are rampant among corporate ladies and that accounts for “girly” questions in the office. Perhaps these are not “girly” questions at all. If men and women are equal in the workplace, they should also be equal at home. These issues are not just female issues. They’re family issues. And if a woman wants to find that “equal life partner” Sandberg drones on about, shouldn’t he be just as bothered about marriage and babies as she is?

What definitively makes something “girly” anyways?

Perhaps Sandberg’s message relies too heavily on generalizations.

Of all people, Sandberg should know the implications of generalizing. After all, she is an exception to the typical California businesswoman.

But what separates Sandberg from others is the vast opportunity she had. She attended Harvard – twice. She was mentored by a top economist who offered her job promotions left, right and centre. Today, she’s well on her way to becoming a billionaire.

Not everyone has the opportunity to empower themselves the way Sandberg has. Some people simply can’t afford it.

You shouldn’t need a Harvard degree or a Swiss bank account to achieve gender equality.

So, yes, Sheryl Sandberg is still pretty cool. She’s on the right track, and she’s starting a much-needed discussion about women in the workplace.

And maybe, just maybe, if we apply her message to the whole of society, not just working women, the landscape of gender inequality in the office will begin to shift.

elenti@ryersonfolio.com
@ericalenti