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.

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.

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Margaret Barthel is an editorial fellow at AtlanticLIVE.

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