Sheryl Sandberg Gives American Women a Performance Review

Before there were second-wave feminists, there were women's professional associations. Sandberg is looking to combine the two models to help women lead.

Mike Segar(Reuters)

A couple of years ago, I went to the opening of a photography exhibit in Washington's Penn Quarter organized by local news site DCist. It had been maintaining a popular Flickr feed of reader-submitted photos and in 2006 decided to launch an online contest, from which images would be curated for the show. At the time, I'd been dipping in and out of the local art world for around half a decade, first as a reporter and later as a silent observer of the scene, and so recognized many of its leading personages.

That night the room was packed. Beyond packed -- stuffed and sweltering. Yet I saw only one or two faces that I recognized. "Who are all these people?" I wondered. "Where did they come from? And why have I never met any of them before?"

What they were, it turned out, was a new community being born. Internet organizing, whether in the professional or the social arena, has a tremendous and by now well-documented capacity to create vibrant cultural networks where none existed before by knitting together people who have shared interests but no preexisting shared social geography. To be sure, online communities tend to arise around and overlay existing social networks (such as the DCist site, the central node around which a community swarmed that night, and whose 2013 show will hold two opening nights "limited to 500 per evening"). But organizing done through Facebook or Facebook-like efforts also has a tremendous capacity to call people up off the sidelines and create new leaders in the fresh space of a novel community as it emerges.

I've seen it over and over again in the past decade, from Howard Dean's Meetups to Barack Obama's Facebook-inspired social networking/community organizing/GOTV apparatus to reports on the Arab spring to even minor social events, like an Embassy of Sweden Innovation & Technology exhibit/cocktail party in 2008 that drew several thousand people more than could fit in the building, thanks to a Facebook notice that went viral.

It is in this dynamic that the true potential of the Lean In Circles proposed by Sheryl Sandberg can be found -- and why people should take them seriously as a potential force for change.

* * *

Sandberg is a chief operating officer, a near-billionaire, a Harvard-Radcliffe College and Harvard Business School Graduate, one of the most powerful women in business, the fifth most powerful in the world, according to Forbes. But the most important data point on her resume, the one that makes most of this possible and which also must be kept in mind when reading her book, is that she is someone who works at Facebook. Who leads Facebook. Who helped invent the Facebook we know today. Hers is a Facebook feminism, and what she's doing in concert with her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is taking some of the basic principles that undergird the massive growth of that company under her tenure as second-in-command -- engagement, reach, relevance, and social context -- and applying them to promoting her book and launching an ambitious professional development project for women, the Lean In foundation, funded with her own money.

The biggest wave of critiques against Sandberg so far have come from more traditional and intersectional feminists, and from mommy bloggers. I could rehash the pre-publication backlash to Sandberg, as well as the backlash against the backlash, but the fact of the matter is that all the huffing and puffing about why she's not organizing janitors or home health-care aides or stay at home moms is largely beside the point -- because that's not what her project is about. Sandberg is an unapologetic capitalist and senior manager who began her career in Washington, D.C. She says she's interested in seeing more women in leadership posts in corporate America and in the highest ranks of government. That means more women at the top, more women in positions of power, and more women who have the training and experience to lead within institutions actually getting a shot at doing -- or daring to do -- it. Hers is not a conversation for opt-outs, except to the extent that it might call them back to the field; Sandberg's conversation is for women who have to or want to stay in the game, and to thrive there.

For the first time in American history, there are now more college-educated women than men -- more than a million more. The Sandberg conversation is for the vast swath of college-educated women who work full-time and would like this thing that they spend the majority of their waking hours doing to be (more) rewarding, and maybe need a little bit of a kick in the pants to remember why they got into their chosen field in the first place, and also little encouragement after years being in the gender minority at the office. It is, perhaps, for women who feel as personally stalled as the feminist movement itself is, but who recall a time when they were more ambitious and all the pathways seemed clearer and they were more hopeful about their own lives. It is less for the tiny but vocal community of professional feminists than for post-feminist women who, like Sandberg, came to feminism late or woke up one morning and realized the equal world they'd been promised since they were kids and thought they were entering when they were young does not actually exist. And as much as there is in Lean In about marrying smart and really going for it professionally before you have kids, it's not even necessarily a book for young women, given how many busy professionals don't marry until their mid-30s or have kids until they are pushing 40, or even older. The goal of the Lean In Community, as outlined in documents obtained by the New York Times, is to help women find "personal fulfillment" and "professional success." And, though it doesn't say this, to help them feel less isolated.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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