Sheryl Sandberg Saw Her Backlash Coming

After reading Sheryl Sandberg's "feminist manifesto" Lean In, you get the eerie impression that she knew what her critics would say.

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After reading Sheryl Sandberg's "feminist manifesto" Lean In, you get the eerie impression that the Facebook COO knew what her critics would say. Amid her practical advice for women trying to succeed in corporate America, she alludes to the very criticisms lobbed at her and her book (many by people who hadn't read Lean In) in the run-up to the publication of the book this coming Monday. (She also happens to preempt the related, but slightly different Marissa Mayer conversation as well.) The earliest reviews ranged from unfavorable to unfair: many railed on Sandberg's handbook without having read it, complaining about issues unrelated to the text. She has yet to comment on the situation. (Sandberg declined to answer whether she anticipated the kind of responses she's drawn, but her assistant said, "you are at the right place.")

But Sandberg doesn't really have to respond: she already did in her book. At one point she writes: "Learning to withstand criticism is a necessity for women." But it's not just general "criticism" that she anticipated, but the exact arguments.

"Every social movement struggles with dissension within its ranks, in part because advocates are passionate and unlikely to agree on every position and solution, " she writes toward the end. She knew the criticisms would come from within the feminist community—from people who don't believe Sandberg is doing it right. And, indeed, that is how the conversation has evolved, with prominent women's issue writers speaking up. To that, Sandberg already has her response: "We should strive to resolve our differences quickly, and when we disagree stay focused on our shared goals. This is not a plea for less debate, but for more constructive debate." Calling out Sandberg's noted love for Prada ankle boots, as Maureen Dowd did in her New York Times takedown, or the problem with the acknowledgments section is exactly the types of "debates" Sandberg hopes people will move past.

Sandberg shows herself to be well-versed in the ways the media and the blogosphere discusses gender issues and the workplace. Throughout her manual she references articles on work-life balance issues and the reactions they elicit. At one point she cites Jessica Valenti's Tumblr post "Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies." Later, she mentions how the tech bloggers characterized a moment when she broke down and cried as "Sheryl Sandberg Cries on Mark Zuckerberg's Shoulder." Would the media have written that if a male had cried to Zuck? No.

Because of this awareness she understands of her public image as an elitist, one of the main criticisms of her point of view in the book. Early on she points to a New York Times article about her success, which said she got "lucky" because she had "powerful mentors along the way." Later, in two separate reviews of Lean In in The New York Times writers, Maureen Dowd and Jodi Kantor point to this elitism as a main problem with her prescriptions. "Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder," writes Kantor. Or, as the Daily Mail put it, "the average working woman can't relate to the $500 million Facebook COO." Almost as if she anticipated that very reaction, Sandberg pre-counters: "The media are also quick to credit external factors for a woman's achievements." Her position, rather than her hard word or intelligence helped her get where she is, so she can't possibly understand the cause of the average person.

Since, a few critics, including this very site, have pointed to the double standard of calling out a woman at the top for giving career advice. "When’s the last time someone picked up a Jack Welch (or Warren Buffett, or even Donald Trump) bestseller and complained that it was unsympathetic to working class men who had to work multiple jobs to support their families?" wonders Elizabeth Spiers in The Verge, on Sandberg's behalf. Sandberg, too, preempted that suggestion. "Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to go through life without being labeled by my gender," she theorizes. (As she notes and as you can see above "Male CEO of Facebook" brings up zero Google search results.) This, too, applies to the Mayer work-from-home ban, which because of her gender got characterized as a war on daycare more than a corporate move. Both Sandberg and Mayer will always be the "female" leaders of their companies, which means anything they say or do gets framed in that manner. "Women in powerful positions often receive greater scrutiny," writes Sandberg, referring to the backlash Mayer received after taking two weeks maternity leave. "The dearth of female leaders causes one woman to be viewed as representative of her entire gender." Sandberg's career advice shouldn't have to and certainly doesn't apply to every woman out there. How could it? And yet, because she is one of the few women offering up suggestions for change at one, admittedly upper class level, she has to speak for us all.

Ultimately, Sandberg believes that the conversation took this turn because of the gender biases she talks about for much of her book. This is classic woman on woman hate, she says:

The more women stick up for one another, the better. Sadly this doesn't always happen. And it seems to happen even less when women voice a position that involves a gender related issue. The attacks on Marissa for her maternity leave plans came almost entirely from other women. This has certainly been my experience too. Everyone loves a fight--and they really love a cat fight. 

Looking back at the media criticisms, the majority of them come from women, as I noted the other day. But, a "cat fight" doesn't really capture the phenomenon. It's easier for a woman to comment on another woman talking about woman things—she has more legitimacy than a man. But, also, when reading a book of advice for ladies, other women tend to take it as a personal mentoring session, as Spiers explains:

Instead of asking what Sheryl Sandberg’s book offers in terms of practical advice for women, these critics ask questions directed inward: what does Sheryl Sandberg’s career and personal life say about me? Is this something I want? Is it something I should want? Is Sheryl Sandberg-ism being thrust upon me? Is she even talking to me?

Even with that attitude, however, it's hard to believe that star New York Times columnist Dowd, who has a giant office reserved for her when she visits New York from her D.C. homebase, couldn't relate to Sandberg's "elitist" career advice. Even as a journalist on a much lower rung much of her not all that controversial advice—like: to learn to negotiate—resonated. In fact, many other women much lower on the totem pole can relate, argues The New Yorker's Anna Holmes: "I believe that many, many women, young and old, elite and otherwise, will find it prescriptive, refreshing, and perhaps even revolutionary." So, maybe, Sandberg is right, this is just one big cat-fight.

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