Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and the Feminist Mantle

Commentators quibble with her outlook on the business world's gender gap

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In a sweeping New Yorker profile this week, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg laid out her explanation for the achievement gap between men and women in the business world. People mostly agree that Sandberg, who's moved from the Department of Treasury to Google to Facebook, comes off as wildly charming and charismatic. Yet her solutions for women--to "stop blaming others" and take more responsibility--have stirred a debate among some feminist commentators. Here are Sandberg's comments on gender equality that bloggers are honing in on:

"What I believe, and that doesn't mean everyone believes it, is that there are still institutional problems and we need more flexibility in all of this stuff," Sandberg told them. "But much too much of the conversation is on blaming others, and not enough is on taking responsibility ourselves."

Yes, she continued, we could swap anecdotes about sexist acts. But doing so diverts women from self-improvement. She opposes all forms of affirmative action for women. "If you don't believe there is a glass ceiling, there is no need," she told me. She doesn't even like voluntary efforts to keep positions open for qualified women. There's a cost, she explained, in lost time, and a cost for women, because "people will think she's not the best person and that job was held open for a woman."

At Harvard, she started a group called Women in Economics and Government. "Nonetheless, Sandberg claims that she was not a feminist. The goal of the group, she says, was just 'to get more women to major in government and economics," reads Ken Auletta's New Yorker piece.  Here's where Sandberg's critics are coming in:

She's wearing rose-tinted lenses  Director of Columbia's Gender and Policy program and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett thinks "Sandberg totally underestimates the challenge that women face," and her disagreement is mentioned in the New Yorker piece:

Hewlett agrees with Sandberg that women must be more assertive, but she believes Sandberg simply doesn’t understand that there is a “last glass ceiling,” created not by male sexists but by “the lack of sponsorship,” senior executives who persistently advocate for someone to move up. A third of upper-middle managers are now women—“the marzipan layer”—she notes. This number has increased in recent years, but the women aren’t rising to the top. She believes that Sandberg is insufficiently aware of this problem because she has benefitted from sponsors.

She should be more aware of her own priveleges  Jezebel's Irin Carmon says Sandberg's rise is a net positive for women but she lacks a certain self-awareness.

The piece mentions that Sandberg "has a nanny at home and a staff at work. Google made her very rich; Facebook may make her a billionaire," but the key variables begin far before Sandberg made her own money. The piece reports that Sandberg was raised by an ex-French professor stay-at-home mom and an opthamologist dad, graduated at the top of the economics department at Harvard. She is also white, conventionally attractive, and socially graceful.

But she's not as gender-blind as some might think, writes Jenna Goudreau at Forbes:

While Sandberg may deny sexism as the cause, she knows there’s a problem. Her speeches frequently cite shameful statistics on the low numbers of female executives and board members. Even Facebook, the article points out, does not have a woman on its six-member board. Perhaps as an antidote, Sandberg hosts all-women dinners at her home and counsels other women to “sit at the table,” negotiate their salaries, have a true partnership at home and not to disengage from the office once they embark on motherhood.

Sandberg's simply a charmer more than a firebrand, notes Kara Swisher at All Things Digital:  "Sandberg, who comes off as quite a deft smoothie (which she is) in the New Yorker piece, is clearly not a terrifier and it seems to be working out well for her so far."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.