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The Uselessness of Hating Sheryl Sandberg

Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

“Women of the world, recline!” writes columnist Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy, offering a cheery rejoinder to contemporary capitalism’s imperative that we slave away, in constant service to tyrannical bosses, cell phones, and children.

Brooks, whose piece went viral and was republished in The Washington Post, has had it with the work. Her revolutionary proposition: Women should curl up in a La-Z-Boy, take a nap, and read a novel before they burn out, drop out and leave the workforce with even fewer women than it already has. It’s an idea she came to at about the time that she was “marking up a memo on U.S. drone policy while simultaneously ordering a custom-decorated cake for my daughter’s sixth grade musical cast party and planning my remarks for a roundtable on women in national security.”

Hurrah! Brava! Thank you, Rosa Brooks, for saying something so imminently sane and humane! There’s just one (big) problem.

Here’s what it is: Brooks’ story is framed not as a noble call-to-arms against the institutionalized inequities and pressure-cooker standards that confront modern women, but instead as opposition to another woman, one who happens to be fighting the exact same battles, and pointing to the exact same injustices, as Rosa Brooks.

This is how Brooks’ epiphany about the insanity of the memos and the custom cakes and the roundtable remarks gets encapsulated: “Suddenly, it hit me: I hate Sheryl Sandberg.”


Brooks explains, tongue mostly in cheek, that after reading Lean In, Sandberg’s bestselling 2013 book about gender inequity in workplaces, she “started stepping up at work,” taking on multiple “complex and urgent projects.” She “leaned in” at home too: “I became a room parent at the children’s school, hosted the class potluck … and decided that my children would go to school each day with organic, homemade lunches.”

Then, of course, she realized that she was miserable, and, thanks to her “I-hate-Sheryl epiphany,” came to this conclusion: “Ladies, if we want to rule the world—or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions—we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us. We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”

I agree. Over the past forty years, a combination of capitalist drive, technological advancement, the absence of social policy to support gender equality in the workforce, antifeminist pushback that’s made “parenting” (mothering) a full-time pursuit and the failure to equally reconfigure domestic expectation has put women on a 24-hour-day hamster wheel of overextension and undernourishment.

But none of this—none of it—is the fault of Sheryl Sandberg.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that Lean In is problematic. I do not want to re-prosecute feminism’s Guerre de Sheryl here, but briefly: when Lean In was published, lots of feminists didn’t like it, some for good reasons, some without having read it. Me, I liked it. And I still do, though I have serious qualms about Sandberg’s ties to companies like Wal-Mart and AOL. This mixed reaction shouldn’t have been unusual in response to a big book. But, somehow, the divide over Lean In became defining within feminism. The question of whose “side” you were on showed what kind of a feminist you were. It was a soul-sucking morass of anger and accusation.

I’m re-engaging it here because I think the degree of animus toward Sandberg tells us something very important about how some women publicly exchange ideas about the stark challenges that Brooks lays out in her piece. It’s an example of how we are encouraged—by the media that publishes our stories and a culture that tells us that we are each other’s biggest problems—to engage issues of inequity and double-standards as intra-gender divisions, and not as larger complaints lodged against men or the civic and economic institutions they still control.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that women yell at each other out of any bio-determined impulse. I’m saying that the direction in which we are regularly urged to express our anger is at other women.

One of the reasonable critiques of Sandberg is that she aimed her imperatives at women, implicating them, and not their male bosses or partners, for sexist inequity. But when critics use her as the multi-purpose object of their ire, they perpetuate the very same cycle. And they use her all the time. She has become a billboard onto which many women have projected their frustrations and resentments.

When we’re angry about capitalism, we get angry at Sandberg, and not at the men who make up 95.6 percent of Fortune 500’s CEOs. When we are mad at Facebook, which Brooks (I think generously) calls “the Internet equivalent of Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds,” we get mad at Sandberg, not at Mark Zuckerberg or the massively male tech industry in which he rose. When we’re furious about this country’s embarrassing lack of paid parental leave or subsidized daycare, we get furious at Sandberg for not throwing her money behind lobbying efforts on those accounts, rather than at the men who make up 82 percent of Congress, 76 percent of state legislatures and one hundred percent of our past presidents and vice presidents. When we get angry about the continuing expectations that women are responsible for more parenting, housekeeping and other domestic drudgery, we don’t hate our husbands for not ordering the custom-designed cake or hosting the potlucks or packing the god-damned organic lunches, we “hate Sheryl Sandberg!”

Again, I get it: I, too, wish that Sandberg supported more family-friendly legislation, plus, she is easy to hate. She is wildly, stupidly, impossibly successful. Her address of gender inequity is automatically suspect in that she can afford cooks and babysitters—stuff she acknowledges, but which still doesn’t help most of us relate to her anecdotes. She is also one of the most irritatingly energetic people on the planet, a woman who operates on superhuman stores of pep. As Brooks points out, when the two were at Harvard together, Sandberg was an aerobics instructor. “Some college students, like my friend Suzanne,” Brooks writes, “take aerobics classes. Some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes. Other college students, like myself, lie around the dorm reading novels.”

I am like Brooks. I lie around. I read novels. I don’t like aerobics. But I do not hate Sheryl Sandberg. I don’t hate her because, while she is preternaturally energetic, even the most avid undergraduate aerobics teacher would have a hard time creating capitalism and competitive parenting all on her own. And I don’t hate her because I suspect that, despite our differing levels of commitment to cardiac fitness, Sandberg and I agree with Rosa Brooks about a hell of a lot of important stuff. And while I vehemently do not believe that women should give each other any kind of sisterly pass on stuff we differ on, I do think it’s important that we not make false enemies of the other women we’re actually fighting alongside!

Brooks writes about how “we’ve managed to create a world in which … if you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7 you’re not a reliable colleague.”

Yes, it’s terrible, and something that Sandberg addresses in Lean In, where she writes about “the extension of working hours,” and how in 2009, married middle-income parents worked more than eight and a half hours more per week than in 1979.  Sandberg also describes how it began to dawn on her “that my job did not really require that I spend twelve full hours a day in the office….cutting unnecessary meetings saved time… Long before I saw the poster, I began to adopt the mantra ‘Done is better than perfect.’”

Yes, so one woman’s corporate affirmation poster is another woman’s La-Z-Boy! Who cares? They’re making very related points, and to be fair, even Sandberg approvingly cites Colin Powell’s assertion that whenever possible, his employees should “work normal hours, go home at a decent time, play with the kids, enjoy family and friends, read a novel, clear their heads, daydream, and refresh themselves.”

Brooks writes that “in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.” Sandberg agrees, and in Lean In cites an ex-boss who told her that most people who quit did so because they were burnt out, yet that all of them quit with unused vacation time, prompting Sandberg to conclude that, “counterintuitively, long-term success at work often depends on not trying to meet every demand placed on us.”

Brooks writes of how “Things were different in my own childhood, but today, parenting has become a full-time job: it requires attendance at an unending stream of birthday parties, school meetings, class performances, and soccer games…the arranging of play dates, the making of organic lunches, and the supervising of elaborate, labor-intensive homework projects than cannot be completed without extensive adult supervision.”

Uh-huh, avers Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, who describes of her own failure to meet the high bar of modern motherhood, as on the St. Patrick’s Day that she forgot to dress her son in green. “If there is a new normal for the workplace,” she writes, “there is a new normal for the home too…My memory of being a kid is that my mother was available but rarely hovering or directing my activities. My siblings and I did not have organized play-dates. We rode our bikes around the neighborhood without adult supervision. …Today a ‘good mother’ is always around and always devoted to the needs of her children.” Sandberg suggests ratcheting back expectations. “The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving,” she writes. “Wearing a green T-shirt on St. Patrick’s Day is purely optional.”

Yes, you heard it there first: Recline (a little)!

It’s all, Brooks notes, tied up with the second shift, the lingering expectations that women pull more weight at home, in addition to clocking in competitive hours at work. “As long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and childcare,” she writes, “women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity. They’ll continue to do what too many talented women already do: Just as they’re on the verge of achieving workplace leadership positions, they’ll start dropping out.”

Yes. This cycle of extra domestic expectation and the depressing impact it has on women’s choices within the workforce is, in fact, kind of the whole point of Lean In.

My point here is not to dismantle Brooks argument. I agree with Brooks about the challenges women face, though I also agree with Bryce Covert, who writes that “telling women to lean out…not to take every opportunity, be aggressive and aim for the top…is not revolutionary. It’s what many women either choose to do or are forced to do in….a workplace that has yet to come to grips with the idea that workers have lives outside of the office.” (To that fair point, I’d add that for the more than 40 percent of American single mothers who rely on SNAP benefits, neither Sandberg’s advice about seeking better mentorship nor Brooks’ hot tips about naps and novels are likely to find much practical application.)

But the larger point is that we must stop having these conversations amongst ourselves. We have to recognize and question the comfort of the woman-vs.-woman frame for battles that are, at their heart, against male supremacy.

Why, for example, is Brooks’ story about hating Sandberg and not about hating that terrifying Cadillac commercial in which a white man from your worst Ayn Randian nightmare sneers at people from “other countries” who “stroll home…stop by the café…take August off” and waves his hand proprietarily at his too-big house, his too-expensive car, and his wife and family, proclaiming that as Americans, we’re “crazy, driven, hard-working believers” and that “all the stuff” is “the upside to taking only two weeks of in August?”

You know who I hate? I hate that guy. Which, incidentally, implicates me too. Because I’m not devoting this column to that guy. Or to the lawmaker guy in Virginia who this week called women “hosts” for babies, or the other lawmaker guy in Virginia who referred to woman as a “twat.” I’m parsing the arguments of two other women, both of whom I happen to admire and whose work I value.

This habit is rooted in the same systemic assumptions that both Brooks and Sandberg are attacking. The assumptions are that women are by biological definition responsible for the domestic, maternal and private sphere, and if they want to participate in the public sphere, responsibility for shouldering both burdens falls to them. Somehow, we don’t challenge it direct, and instead wind up accepting and reinforcing it every time we treat these exchanges as though they are just about women and therefore just between women. We get so busy discussing which woman we hate and which woman’s philosophy is killing us that we never take shots at the men, so busy waging “mommy wars” that we don’t press the daddies to do their share. We let the guys off the hook, again and again.

When Brooks writes that “We need to fight for our right to lean out, and we need to do it together, girls,” she is adding to the very pressures she’s righteously calling out. Why—when the male-run world rewards submission to overtaxing standards of production and exertion—is it women’s job to change that world? Why aren’t we directing these imperatives and criticisms not at each other, but at the men who are setting these standards and crafting the social policies that make them impossible for us to meet?

Brooks suggests that if we’re going to successfully recline, “we need to bring our husbands and boyfriends and male colleagues along, too.” But why do we have to “bring” the husbands and boyfriends and colleagues? They are heavy! Especially when we are dragging them places we never challenge them to go on their own.

I have a different spin on both Brooks and Sandberg, an alternate mantra: Women of the world: Collaborate! Talk with each other instead of at each other. Work together, from your recliners and c-suites and assembly lines and customer service consoles, to send aggressive messages about what’s wrong not just to each other, but to the dudes. The ones whose responsibility it is to step up, lean out, and lean in to the conversation we’ve been having amongst ourselves for far too long.