Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg touched a nerve by suggesting that women's sometimes ambivalent relationship to power is at least partly responsible for the persistent leadership gap on corporate boards and in C-level suites. Her argument may rub some the wrong way, but that doesn't mean she's wrong.
Somewhere along the line, the dominant language of the women's movement became less about power and more about choice: The choice about whether to work or stay at home. The choice about whether to have children or not. Set aside the fact that these are choices that many women don't have the privilege to make and that even for elite women, these decisions often feel much less like a "choice" than a gut-wrenching forced compromise. What has been lost in this conversation about "balance" and the pressures of managing life and work and family is some unapologetic, bold insistence that we have more women in visible positions of power and influence.
In order to both topple institutional barriers and to ensure that we have better policies for women and families, more women need to run companies, lead teams, write laws and simply be visible examples for those who would join them. These changes will both support equity and diversity and advance practical goals: Research shows that women legislators are more likely to promote progressive policies that directly impact low-income women and families and women of color.
Ensuring diversity in leadership is a popular idea -- and one in line with American ideals. So why is Sandberg under fire from so many quarters? I think the waves of criticism say a lot about a lack of cohesion in the women's movement but also how we as a society feel about women and power. Sadly, it still makes some people uncomfortable when women and people of color advance or take leadership positions. A close African-American friend of mine vividly recalls being nicknamed "Proper Nelson" growing up because his vocabulary and diction were too good for him to be "really" black.
Today, critics say Sheryl Sandberg is too rich, powerful and successful to speak for all women. Because most other women aren't in her position, she doesn't have the authority to represent or speak on behalf of them. But no one asks white male leaders to speak on behalf of all men; why is Sandberg expected to play that role for women? And if she doesn't play that role, are her ideas any less valid?
A related critique of Sandberg is that her argument fails to speak directly to the concerns of low-income women. I disagree. As Sandberg recently told "60 Minutes," low-income women need strong negotiating skills just as much -- if not more than -- high-earning women so they can get the pay they deserve at work.
While some women will relate to Sandberg more than others, the question of leadership and assertiveness cuts across economics -- not to mention different dimensions of life. Sandberg's point that women need to advocate for themselves applies to any woman who finds herself doing the lion's share of childcare or housework, or who feels she can't ask for flexibility around work to care for a sick child or elderly parent.
I was struck by how relatable Sandberg was in her "60 Minutes" interview, in which she explained that she wrote Lean In to deal in part with her feelings of guilt about time spent out of the home. It is clear from her remarks that she is not arrogantly telling women: "Be more like me." On the contrary, she opened up with candor and humility about nagging self-doubt that made her feel like an imposter and caused her to question whether she deserves a seat at the table at the upper reaches of corporate management.
Far from sounding preachy, Sandberg is speaking from her own direct experience and with the examples of hundreds of women she has worked with, led and interviewed, and is sharing internal conversations that most women I know can relate to in a very profound way. Sandberg's message can be distilled into a mantra that many women will find useful: "Lean in. Form your small circle of advisors. Believe in your worth. You have earned your seat at the table."
If more of us repeat this to ourselves until we feel as sure, confident and deserving as many men do every day, I am certain that we will ultimately have more women senators, CEOs and corporate directors.
Instead of criticizing her, we should celebrate her self-made success in male-dominated fields and be grateful that instead of just amassing more wealth, she's sincerely looking to empower women, build community and spark a movement. And we should continue to highlight and promote other leaders and voices from an increasingly broad and diverse sisterhood.
In the meantime, Sandberg has earned my support, and is showing the kind of leadership the women's movement and society as a whole desperately needs today. As far as I am concerned: Sheryl Sandberg for President!