Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Message Falls Short

I was shuffling my way through the security line at the Chicago airport when I noticed a young, confident girl in line in front of me. She was talking to a stranger and seemed to carry herself with poise, confidence and radiance rare in young girls today. I watched her and wondered how old she was, late teens? Twenty something? The stranger talking to her asked her how old she was and she replied, “Sixteen.”

I was impressed. She still acted 16, but just seemed really comfortable in her skin.

That is what we need to teach our girls and teens.

Twenty four hours after I heard Sheryl Sandberg talk at BlogHer 2013, I keep thinking about her interview and wondering why it bugged me so much. Sandberg opened her interview by asking a group of hundreds of smart powerful women, “How many of you were told you were bossy when you were young?” Seventy-five percent of the room raised their hand. “How many of you have been told you’re too aggressive at work?” Seventy-five percent of the room raised their hand.

“THAT is the problem.”

The problem—as I see it—is first that Sandberg has a narrow view of what kind of leadership skills we should foster in young girls and second she assumes that women are afraid.

Instead of modeling bossy behavior what would happen if we taught girls leadership qualities like: assertiveness, conflict management, knowing when to push the envelope and when not to?

I understand what Sandberg is getting at with her hand raising exercise. Women are unfairly labeled in this world. Hillary Clinton is called a “B#%%$#” for being a strong leader, while her male counterparts are called role models. I think we’re getting it wrong on both accounts. To be strong, women are taught to be pushy and bossy. Men are taught to be aggressive and overbearing. Neither are the kind of leadership skills we must cultivate if we want a new generation where equality is valued.

I appreciate what Sandberg is trying to do. She’s working hard to empower women, she wants women to have a voice. I respect that. I agree that we have a long way to go in the quest for equality for women in society: equal pay for equal work, more women in leadership positions, combatting sexism in the workplace and home. We have a long way to go.

But listening to her BlogHer interview I couldn’t help but feel like her message was reducing a complex issue into catchy, tweetable sound bites. It felt thin. I watched her short promotional video of her new women’s empowerment non-profit and it felt like I was watching an insincere weight loss infomercial. “I used to be afraid, and after a 12 week program with Sheryl Sandberg, now I’m not!”

Sandberg’s premise (in this interview and video, I have yet to read her book Lean In) is that we’re afraid and our fear defines us. And if we weren’t afraid, we would ask for a raise, ask for a promotion etc. We all have fears, personally and professionally. But to operate entirely from the “Women are Afraid” framework is offensive and even harmful.

We need to foster leadership skills that teach women effective ways to speak our minds, creating a culture where women feel comfortable in their skin (which is then reflected in the office setting), conflict management, knowing when to stand your ground, and how to be assertive.

Furthermore, we need to create a business culture that supports women, we need corporate policies that accommodate motherhood, breastfeeding, wage equality, and the like. We need government policies to reflect a society that values women in leadership, and the complexities that women face as they raise families.

So am I afraid? Yes, I’m afraid of Lyme’s Disease and heights. I’m also afraid our society fails to see women’s empowerment isn’t rooted in our own fear, but requires a cultural shift that is multifaceted, and requires a multi-pronged solution.

As I continued to shuffle along the security line, I felt a little glimmer of hope. The young sixteen year old continued to converse confidently with a stranger. THAT is what we need more of.

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