Is Sheryl Sandberg the New Gloria Steinem?

Sheryl Sandberg has become the new "It Girl" for modern feminism. She appears to embody the American woman's dream of having it all.
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NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg poses for a photograph at Barnes and Noble, March 12, 2013 in New York City. Sandberg is promoting her new book 'Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.' (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg poses for a photograph at Barnes and Noble, March 12, 2013 in New York City. Sandberg is promoting her new book 'Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.' (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Who is Sheryl Sandberg?

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer
•The 10th most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes
•A loving mother who leaves the office at 5:30pm to have dinner with her kids
•A Harvard MBA who graduated with highest distinction
•Oprah's friend

Many young women such as myself find this very inspirational. Sheryl Sandberg has become the new "It Girl" for modern feminism. She appears to embody the American woman's dream of having it all.

In the 1970s Gloria Steinem was the awe-inspiring leader of the women's movement. I believe that Sheryl Sandberg is taking on that role today. People want to hear what she has to say. Her TED Talk has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Furthermore, working side-by-side with Mark Zuckerberg at technology darling Facebook is the equivalent of what Gloria Steinem did in the 1970s when she started her own successful magazine: the ultimate professional achievement.

Young women are eager for more female role models. Sheryl Sandberg has become our role model of choice. She's our most passionate advocate. She wants to help us find success and satisfaction in both our careers and personal lives.

So when Sheryl Sandberg tells us to "lean in," we're listening.

What exactly does it mean to lean in?

Leaning in is the opposite of stepping back.

Sheryl observed that many young women turn down leadership and career-advancing opportunities because they want to become mothers one day. They want to have a life outside of work. They want to have balance.

These women may be in their early 20s (or even teenagers for that matter), but they are already limiting their career choices based on a vision of the life they want for themselves -- 10, 20, or even 30 years into the future. Sheryl believes that because women are pre-emptively stepping back, that's the reason why we have not made it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world. It's a pattern we need to reverse.

While cultural norms and the power structures in place certainly play a role in this, Sheryl asks women to recognize their personal power. She quotes American poet and feminist Alice Walker, saying, "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

Women need to speak up

In her book, Sheryl says that Gloria Steinem has profoundly influenced her thinking around women's empowerment. She references a concept popularized by Gloria Steinem -- "internalize the revolution." It is akin to Gandhi's famous saying, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." We often see the big problems of the world as outside of our control. We are waiting for change to happen, rather than being the agents in affecting change.

For example, Sheryl talks about being pregnant with her first child at Google. Her pregnancy was not easy. She gained almost 70 pounds and experienced morning sickness every day for nine months.

With Google growing so quickly, Sheryl often had trouble finding parking. The only spot she could find was typically quite far away. So every morning Sheryl would uncomfortably waddle from her parking spot to her office. She shared this frustration with her husband Dave who mentioned that Yahoo, where he worked at the time, had designated parking for expectant mothers at the front of the building.

When Sheryl heard this, she approached Google co-founder Sergey Brin. She told him that Google needed to have pregnancy parking, sooner rather than later. After hearing Sheryl's case, he agreed. The idea had simply never occurred to him before.

I love this story because it illustrates such a powerful point. If we don't tell people what we need, how can they possibly give it to us? Seriously, how could a man ever fully understand the needs of a pregnant woman? There's just no way.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking -- it's not so easy to ask for what we want. Most of us don't have the same level of seniority or influence as Sheryl Sandberg at work.

My answer to this is two-fold. First, it's not supposed to be easy. Standing up for what we want can be utterly terrifying. But I've found that it's those times when we are most scared that signal our biggest opportunities. We're about to do something really important. We're about to push the envelope. By speaking up and proposing a new way of doing things, we could significantly improve our lives, as well as the lives of others.

Second, you don't need to be a Sheryl Sandberg to create change. We need women at every level of leadership advocating for their needs. For example, it's common knowledge that women negotiate less than men. This has a compounding effect. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Women Don't Ask, assert that by neglecting to negotiate the starting salary for her first job, a woman may sacrifice over half a million dollars by the end of her career.

We can't expect to get what we want by not asking for anything.

Can we have it all?

Before reading Lean In, I thought the answer would be yes. Because on the outside, Sheryl appears to have everything us young women want.

But Sheryl explains that "having it all" is a dangerous myth. This idea contradicts the basic laws of economics and common sense, which recognizes the scarcity of resources and necessity of trade-offs. Instead, Sheryl says that a much better question to ask ourselves is "Can we do it all?" The answer to that is clearly no.

As individuals, we constantly have to make choices -- between work and family, socializing and relaxing, helping others and taking care of ourselves.

Even Sheryl struggles with this. She talks honestly about the immense guilt she feels when she is away from her kids. She asks herself questions such as: Did I have to take this trip? Was this speech really critical for Facebook? Was this meeting truly necessary?

As a single young woman, I also struggle with the demands on my time. I don't have a husband, kids, or even a dog. Despite this, I still wish there were more hours in the day. I wish I had more time to spend with my friends, pursue my passions, and make a bigger difference with my career.

Fortunately, by giving up the myth of having it all, we come one step closer to something we all want, which is self-acceptance and peace of mind.

What do we do next?

In her Barnard commencement speech, Sheryl tells the young women: "You are the promise for a more equal world. So my hope for everyone here is.... [that you] will lean way in to your career. You will find something you love doing and you will do it with gusto. Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top."

To change the world, the best place to start is always with ourselves. When we do what we love and fulfill our unique potential, we make room for more women to do the same. As we collectively rise, Sheryl says "we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all." I wholeheartedly agree. From that perspective, when we lean in, it's not just us women who win; it's also our men, children, and generations to come.

Selena Soo is a business strategist and publicity coach for visionary entrepreneurs, experts, and authors. Join Selena's newsletter for mentoring opportunities and weekly tips to improve your business and life.

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