I Wasn't a Fan of Sheryl Sandberg—Until I Couldn't Find a Job

In college, I had the luxury of developing a sophisticated critique of her call to "lean in." After a few months of unemployment, I found it was just what I needed to hear.
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A year ago, when Lean In hit book stores and caused the firestorm that happens every time a prominent woman makes some sort of dramatic cultural intervention, Sheryl Sandberg wasn't my girl. I was in my final year of college, embroiled in the exhausting process of thinking radical thoughts and then self-righteously posting them to Facebook. I had no time for career advice, and I was not interested in a tech dynamo telling women to get in the damn driver's seat, already.

Sheryl Sandberg is an undeniably easy target if you're in the business of raging against the machine. My huffy critique ran something like this: Lean In speaks to and for a very specific group of women—highly educated, skilled professionals, most privileged by their wealth and many by their race. What does it have to offer women of color or lower income women?

Nor, I felt, does Lean In require any meaningful restructuring from the professional working world, other than that it accommodate an equal division of leadership positions among men and women. When Sandberg does demand change from a system that punishes workers who can't sit at a desk for long daytime hours and that still expects (mostly) women to work a "second shift" of parenting and housework when they arrive home, she does it by asking individual women—already the outsiders in the professional world—to carry the burden of the reform. She believes that the best way to achieve professional gender equality is for women to suck it up and learn to rise to the top of the existing system. At its worst, her message calls out women for failing to floor the accelerator of their career. Subtext: Ladies, you’re not trying hard enough.

These criticisms are great if you're safely ensconced in the collegiate environment, or if you're a career woman with some modicum of job security. But when I left my safe haven and ventured out into a tepid if not downright frigid job market—and when, after months of soul-sucking unemployment, I got lucky and landed short-term work—my perspective on Sheryl Sandberg softened.

Reading Lean In as an idealistic and unemployed college graduate is an emotional roller coaster. Months into my job search and I had a sad little collection of interviews, rejections, and silence in response to my resume, not to mention the hours I spent wondering what was wrong with me as a job candidate. Needless to say, Sheryl Sandberg’s certainty that anyone could have a successful career, if only they took her advice and leaned in, didn’t help my unemployment doldrums.

All that said, there’s a reason that a special "Recent Graduates" edition of Lean In is coming out today. It has never been more important for young adults beginning their career to lean in—hard. In a tough economy, one in which who you know can determine your employment prospects, the value of Sandberg’s advice about making connections and taking initiative is undeniable.

The road to a full-time, well-paid career after college isn’t a straight line these days. Students graduate and then zig-zag through (unpaid and paid) internships, limited-term apprenticeship positions, part-time work, contract work, graduate-school programs, underemployment, and outright unemployment.  In 2012, a Pew study found that 24 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds had taken unpaid work to gain the experience they needed; 35 percent said they had entered graduate programs because of the difficulty of finding work. The March 2014 unemployment rate for 20-to-24-year-olds is 12.2 percent, back up to October 2013 rates. And according to recent findings from the New York Fed, 33 percent of all four-year college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.

It’s a daunting landscape for any college graduate to survey, and for me as a young woman (granted, one in Sandberg’s target audience—ambitious, financially privileged, and highly educated), it was a confusing one. I knew that the odds of landing a permanent full-time job were slim, which left internships, fellowships, and contract work, one of which I might be able to parlay into the beginnings of a career, although I didn’t know how. Worse, as a young woman, I had an idea of some vague spectre of sexism in the workplace, but I worried that I had very little sense of the practical dynamics of that discrimination, nor any idea of how I might address it as a bottom-of-the-totem-pole intern or entry-level professional. I was unemployed, unhappy, and unsure of what I could do to help myself in the face of economic and cultural forces far beyond my control. 

Oddly enough, I ended up taking a second look at Sheryl Sandberg, whose neglect of the pervasiveness of racial, socioeconomic, and gender-based social barriers sparked such criticism from my college self (then safely at school on my parents’ dime). Not so (or not so much) anymore: What I needed now, far more than feminist theory, was someone to tell me that I did have the personal strength to respond to the vast, impossibly complex challenges of finding meaningful work in this economy and preparing to navigate the professional world as a young woman. I needed an example of someone who had the audacity to consider the individual, not society, the center of paradigm shifts. I needed a reminder that I owed it to myself to respect the power of my own agency.

It’s impossible to accuse Sheryl Sandberg of not believing in the individual’s ability to create the change that they desire. While it’s frustrating that her bootstraps approach to 21st century feminism isn’t characterized by a more consistent recognition of the breadth of the societal obstacles to women’s rise to the top, I don’t think we should lose sight of her celebration of the potential force of individual effort. It’s something of a conservative impulse, and it’s definitely imperfect, but it did get me out of bed every morning to face another day of unemployment. 

I don’t credit Lean In with getting me full-time work; I don’t credit Sandberg with discovering some new frontier in feminism; and I believe that Sandberg’s acknowledgement of structural barriers to professional success—particularly where race and class are concerned—is cursory at best. But, almost a year after my graduation from college, she’s giving me hope that, all social and economic structures to the contrary, I can exercise some control when it comes to my professional life. I can’t rage on Facebook about that. 

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Margaret Barthel is an editorial fellow at AtlanticLIVE.

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