Suddenly, Sheryl Sandberg's Critics Care About Working-Class Women

Influential news outlets generally ignore the needs of struggling families.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters

In an editorial meeting during this last recession's crest I pitched a story about double coupons and their popularity among single moms battling to stay economically afloat.

A blank stare on the faces of everyone in the room greeted me.

"Oh, that is so interesting," one of the reporters seated around the circular table said. Then she paused. "What are those?"

I called my godmother immediately to tell her my story.

"Wow," she said, "they never heard of double coupons? They're really out of touch, huh? That's kind of scary."

Most of America's most influential voices have little familiarity with lower-class lives. The idea of pulling out your coupon caddy to get 80 cents off a jug of Tide is as familiar to them as a lunar landing. The Marshall's layaway line might as well be on Mars. As MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff noted recently, "The news media's current economic climate doesn't just shrink newsrooms and kill magazines: it also reifies professional class barriers." Or as one particularly salty cameraman once said to me while I was at ABC News, "I thought they only hired from the Ivys here." (I assured him I had not hidden my public-school education or my Prince George's County, Maryland roots.)

I thought of this class mismatch recently as I've followed the discussion surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's upcoming book, Lean In. Suddenly, and for the first time in a while, a bunch of major news outlets are talking about working-class women. All of a sudden a media that has rarely written or cared about the issues facing the women I grew up with—single moms, working days and nights and odd jobs, often at hourly wages and with no paid maternity leave—invokes their example as a reason to challenge Sandberg's argument about women and ambition.

As one writer wondered, echoing several others, "Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?"

Another asked, "Where are women like the domestic workers in Sandberg's vision of leadership, which privileges women leading at the top, from the corner office, taking the head of the table?"

You don't have to enjoy Sandberg's book or to agree with her arguments about women's ambition and the structural issues stopping women from operating on a level playing field in the workplace. But to assert that her high-flying, private-plane riding, one-fourth of one percent, upper-class status demolishes her ability to talk about other women's lives or to offer online professional skills training if women want it seems to me to raise its own interesting kind of class bias against those who have a ton from those who have a lot, but less. If Sandberg's privilege makes her too out of touch to be relevant to the less fortunate, then a whole slew of people, including many reporters, should rethink their line of work.

Sandberg is an easy target: she is successful and extraordinarily rich and is preaching the power of personal ambition and overcoming professional barriers at a time when most Americans - including the high-gloss, Ivy League set - feel they are stomping through molasses to get ahead despite their most determined efforts. But how about commenting on the merits of her argument rather than her class? When was the last time people asked Warren Buffett if it was appropriate to talk about the tax bracket of his secretary? Or Bill Gates if it was appropriate for a billionaire to talk about entrenched global poverty? Or is talking to the really wealthy and the really poor okay, but talking to working-class people not?

The women I grew up with worked. A lot. They did not have high-class discussions about balance. They had high-frequency conversations about decent childcare and keeping their jobs and paying their rent. At night once a week my mother took me to the night course she attended to try and earn her college degree. I sat in a study lounge outside her room with my elementary school homework while she went to class. She and her friends may or may not have chosen to take advantage of Sandberg's "Lean In" circles. But they certainly would not have been insulted by her talking to them. In fact, they would have appreciated the fact that someone was.

Sandberg is right on one point she makes in her book: For women there is a direct connection between power and likability in others' eyes. The more power you have, the less other people seem to like you. Her own example illustrates it despite the fact that she made clear she understood the firmness of the economic terrain from which she was writing.

"I am also acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families," Sandberg writes in her book. "If we can succeed in adding more female voices at the highest levels, we will expand opportunities and fairer treatment for all."

Maybe. Or maybe we will get more of the same. Either way Sandberg's conversation is worth having. Regardless of whether the messenger wears Prada or Payless.