Sheryl Sandberg: modern prophet

Nobody likes a know-it-all.

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg burst onto the scene with “Lean In,” her best-selling broadside against gender inequality in the workplace, many saw an occasion for a mean-in.

Sandberg’s apparently maddening message, “that men still run the world” despite the triumphs of the feminist revolution such as suffrage, equal access to education and sexual freedom, is coupled with an exhortation to women to stop holding themselves back and to aim for top jobs in government and industry. Yet her attempt to revivify feminism’s fading star was promptly met with roaring rebuke.

A “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots,” The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd condescendingly called her. Another Times reporter, Jodi Kantor, author of “The Obamas,” blithely suggested Sandberg’s privilege might render her message irrelevant: “Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?” she wondered.

At the Washington Post, Melissa Gira Grant likened “Lean In” to a “vanity project”: “This is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line,” she wrote. And in The Nation, the headline: “What ‘Mad Men’s’ Peggy Olson Teaches Us That Sheryl Sandberg Doesn’t.”

Oh, for the days when discourse was kind.

Sandberg’s closest counterpart, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has also been subjected to “so much scorn” as “The End of Men” author Hanna Rosin noted on Slate. Ever since Mayer changed Yahoo’s flexible telecommuting policy (and famously forwent her maternity leave), she has been pilloried for her indifference to work-life balance while male CEOs who have also nixed pliable policies — including the heads of Best Buy and Bank of America, as a Washington Post article noted — have never been called anything near “The Stalin of Silicon Valley.”  

To make matters worse, though this is hardly new, most of the catty name calling has come from other women — many of whom, one suspects, continue to struggle on a far more ordinary plane with the many trying tasks Sandberg has mastered. Why else so much scorn for someone so worldly and winsome? Any degree of psychological acuity could uncloak this cast of envy: Sandberg may be hard to take because not only does she have-it-all, she actually is-it-all — smart, self-made, super-accomplished, superrich, personable, poised and pretty. And there are aspects of her fortune that simply can’t be earned; they are a gift of nature.

As the author and literary critic Clive James recently said to The New York Times, “Spraying cold water on a witch hunt is one of the duties that a critic should be ready to perform.”

Well, how about a Bible scholar instead?

“When you think about it, women can be tremendous diminishers of other women, and that’s very unfortunate,” the writer and educator Erica Brown told me. Brown knows this fraught terrain; as a career-driven mother of four — she is a prolific writer and currently serves as the scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — she admitted to tuning out social criticism of her choices. “Those voices are paralyzing,” she said. “I think it really speaks to the insecurity of women in society today — that they still profoundly feel a need to either criticize or judge one woman’s lifestyle and life choices in a certain kind of catty, feline belittling way.” The Sandberg backlash, she suggested, “may be coming from people who are so threatened by the subtlety of having to juggle a world that they simply can’t accept the fact that someone has done this successfully, and they want to poke holes in her happy cloud.”

Some of the criticisms, of course, are valid. Like when Daily Beast editor Tina Brown opened her Women in the World Summit with a “call to arms,” pointing out that in a world in which millions of women still struggle for basic civil rights, “Leaning in isn’t enough. … Pushing up against the glass ceiling is practically a luxury when you consider the millions of women who can feel the floor dropping beneath their feet.”

But Sandberg has considered that, too. When she hosted a book party for Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who sparked the nonviolent revolution that led to the ouster of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, many of her guests asked Gbowee what they could do to help. “More women in power,” Gbowee replied. Sandberg believes, “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”

Biblical women, who were rarely vested with societal power, frequently took it upon themselves to change the tide of history. Following Pharoah’s decree that all Israelite first-born boys be killed, it was Miriam who scolded her father Amram for divorcing his wife — “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s!” she cried — as it meant that neither male nor female Hebrews would be born. It was Miriam who followed Moses, the brother she prophesied, down the Nile River and into Pharaoh’s home, where she cleverly arranged for the child to be nursed by his biological mother. And further back, intuiting that leadership could fall into the wrong hands, Rebecca craftily machinated for her son Jacob to steal his brother’s birthright. And how could we forget Yael, who used her powers to seduce in order to surprise: Once King Sisera was in her tent, she did a very unladylike thing and stabbed him in the head, saving Israel from war.

In the Bible, women take tactical initiative, Brown said. “They’re not asking anyone’s permission.” But by contrast, even in today’s “post-feminist” world, she added, “Women tend to need to be invited to take positions of leadership; they wait to see if someone acknowledges them or finds them worthy.

“If you’re really a leader, what are you waiting for? The women who have made history have not waited.”

Women who have made history also offer another indispensable lesson of leadership: that real change does not occur in isolation, but in community. So every woman who leans out from Sandberg’s cause because it isn’t inclusive enough, or sufficiently relevant, is only further fragmenting the feminist cause. Who cares if Sandberg is a queen? This American royal is telling all women everywhere that they’re capable.