Sheryl Sandberg is the author of a new book that you've heard of if you're connected enough to be reading this, promoted by one of those PR tsunamis that publishers inflict upon the public every year or two in hopes of recouping six- or seven-figure advances: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
Sandberg is also the chief operating officer of Facebook.
Lean In, we are told, is More Than Just a Book. It is a social movement. A way of life.
Comparing herself to Betty "The Feminine Mystique" Friedan, Sandberg wants her book to inspire "Lean In Circles," where women would meet to plot how to climb the corporate ladder and achieve gender parity in the boardroom. At their creepy gatherings, women will learn how to act more boldly, aggressively -- more like men. Her idea of how men act, anyway.
According to Garance Franke-Ruta, writing in The Atlantic: "Sandberg is an unapologetic capitalist and senior manager who began her career in Washington, D.C. She says she's interested in seeing more women in leadership posts in corporate America and in the highest ranks of government. That means more women at the top, more women in positions of power, and more women who have the training and experience to lead within institutions actually getting a shot at doing -- or daring to do -- it."
I think Sandberg is one of the most insufferable fools in the world of business. Which is saying something. But I don't hate her for the same reasons as people like Maureen Dowd.
In the New York Times, columnist Dowd sums up Sandberg as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots." Such Dowdian snark, though cruel, is fair. Sandberg, after all, uttered a comment whose revealing immodesty would make Donald Trump blush: "I always thought I would run a social movement."
Memo to Sandberg: You don't "run" a social movement. Lead it, maybe. If you're lucky.
Still, Dowd et al.'s argument that Sandberg's wealth denies her the standing to issue advice to working women leaves me cold. It doesn't matter who or what she is; either her ideas are smart and/or good for society or they're not.
What grates about Sandberg, I think, is less the fact that a person born at mile 25 thinks she won the marathon because she worked so hard than her failed attempt to elevate a self-help book to the level of politics.
Sandberg doesn't know about politics. She doesn't even know about identity politics.
Politics -- debate and discussion about how we should live our lives and how to solve our problems after we have identified them -- is hard. Very few people -- including most politicians and elected officials -- undertake the lifetime of thinking and research, or possess the magic of inspiration it takes to come up with a transformative vision for an alternative future.
That's real politics.
Then there's identity politics.
MICHAEL WUERTENBERG/ WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
Identity politics, the struggle by women, gays, ethnic minorities, and so on against their privileged rivals in the economy and society, is a dead end. It's tokenism. At best, movements based on identity politics grant special privileges to a tiny subset of traditionally oppressed demographic groups. Meanwhile, the overall hierarchical class structure remains intact.
It was moving, for example, to watch African Americans celebrate the election of Barack Obama. Four and a half years later, however, not only can we see that the status of blacks remains the same as 2008 -- harassed, arrested, shot, and imprisoned at disproportionately high rate.
Everyone's goal ought to be to liberate humanity from oppression. Identity politics distract from this struggle. They liberate no one.
What Sandberg advocates is even less worthwhile than identity politics.
Sandberg wants rat-race politics. Men, she argues, act like a bunch of testosterone-fueled jerks at work. She wants women to beat them at their own game.
"When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women," writes Sandberg. "When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. ... The solution is making sure everyone is aware of the penalty women pay for success. Recently at Facebook, a manager received feedback that a woman who reported to him was 'too aggressive.' [The manager] asked point-blank, 'If a man had done those same things, would you have considered him too aggressive?' They each said no. By showing both men and women how female colleagues are held to different standards, we can start changing attitudes today."
Man, I sure wouldn't want to work at Facebook. It's a lot more fun to work in an organization where no one -- men or women -- comes on too strong. Where people work as a team.
Lean In fails because Sandberg wants to accelerate the "race to the bottom" behavior that has become standard in American business and politics. She is not the solution to a problem.
She is a problem.
What we need to do is create a society in which everyone -- men and women, gays and straights, whites and blacks, and so on -- enjoys equal access to the good things in life. Whether like me you have concluded that capitalism, the idea that we are all created unequal, is evil and irredeemable, or you'd prefer to reform the system to make it more humane, replacing male assholes with female assholes gets us nowhere.
Rather than tell American women (or men) what to do, Sandberg would do better to consider her own role in making the United States a worse place to live.
Facebook is the face of the New Economy. It sucks $5 billion a year out of the U.S. economy, yet it puts almost nothing back in. It employs fewer than 4,000 Americans. (By way of comparison, GM -- which generates less than twice as much as Facebook -- employs more than 200,000 workers.)
Even if Sandberg is successful with her Lean In Circles, she will have accomplished the same thing as Facebook. She will have made a tiny privileged of elites richer -- and 99 percent of America poorer.
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