Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, giving Barnard commencement speech
Sheryl Sandberg has become, in recent months, the poster lady for women in the workforce (see: Businessweek “Why Facebook Needs Sheryl Sandberg”).
I liked Sandberg’s TED Talk, the fundamental premise of which she reiterated in her commencement address to Barnard College. Sandberg’s speech got crapped on by Jezebel today, and I have to say I found their criticism a little heavy handed.
The tenets of Sandberg’s philosophy are simple: aim high, stop worrying about being liked, and “don’t leave before you leave.” That first one is self-explanatory, and the second is similar to Mika Brzezinski’s recent advice. Her last piece of advice, this “leaving before you leave” business, references the phenomenon whereby women plan for their professional exit years in advance. Women don’t pursue the most difficult specialties because someday we may want a better work life balance; we don’t shoot for partner because eventually we will want to step out to have babies.
Sandberg isn’t criticizing women who stay at home, or those who leave the work place to do so. She’s pointing out that when we preemptively put ourselves on less competitive, less interesting, less challenging tracks, we facilitate our departure years before we actually need to make a decision. If you don’t love what you do and feel constantly engaged, why would you come back at all? And the only way to be really engaged is to “lean in” to your chosen career from day one.
Jezebel jumped all over this as victim-blaming, arguing that Sandberg’s speech places too much weight on the shoulders of individual women to overcome obstacles instead of on systemic obstacles themselves (i.e. childcare/labor laws). Sigh. It’s a frustrating response because while, yes, I do absolutely 100% agree that their are giant systemic flaws that hinder the professional progress of women, I also think that there are things that we, as individuals, can do better to crawl out from behind these obstacles.
Taking the long view, asking ‘how do we fix this problem for the next generation’ is valuable. But in the meantime, until the laws are changed and the policies amended, Sandberg is giving young, ambitious, professional women like me the mental and emotional tools to achieve. So watch the speech, and lean the fuck in.
Related Post: Mika Brzezinski with more advice on earning power, the work world, and why wanting to be liked is holding us back.
Related Post: Guest post on Smart Girls, Stupid Things about the art of the ask.