Sheryl Sandberg, take two

Last week, Kate Losse’s review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In unexpectedly made headlines when one of Sandberg’s PR people sent Losse a startling private tweet that read, “There’s a special place in hell for you.” This was paraphrasing Madeline Albright, who once famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Clearly, Losse had hit a nerve. At any rate, the wildly disproportionate response was ultra-creepy.

Of the many reviews I have read of Sandberg’s book (mine can be found here), Losse’s is the most interesting by far, although I do have mixed (that word again!) feelings about it. I thought it made some excellent and extremely important points but was also unfair and over the top. Losse, who is a former Facebook employee, seems to question the sincerity of Sandberg’s feminism and views the book as a giant marketing gimmick for Facebook. I don’t agree; I think Sandberg’s feminism is sincere, though her version of it isn’t my version. If she wanted to invent a marketing scam that would draw more women to Facebook, far more plausible paths are available. I would think a diet book would do the trick, or an Oprah-style empowerment movement that soft-peddled the feminism.

That said, Sandberg is a canny businesswoman, and of course she is using Lean In to promote Facebook, and vice versa.

Losse got screwed over by Facebook, at least partly for sexist reasons. She uses this to try to debunk Sandberg’s thesis that more women at the top will mean better conditions for women employees overall. But this is a shaky argument. I don’t doubt that Facebook is a sexist company — Facebook started out as a site to rate women’s hotness and its bro culture is notorious — but it’s only one data point. And besides, it doesn’t seem to have a critical mass of women in its leadership yet (I believe Sandberg is still the only woman on its board).

Losse’s most intriguing argument is that by advocating that women “lean in,” Sandberg’s book serves the ideological function of encouraging them to become more efficient worker bees for capitalism. I think there’s a lot to this; where I disagree are the parts where Losse seems to imply that this is Sandberg’s conscious design. Losse’s language is slippery when discussing this point; for example, she attributes agency to the book, rather than Sandberg herself (“Lean In is really waging a battle for work and against unmonetized life”).

What’s really valuable about Losse’s article is that is forces us to grapple with the bigger questions of the Sheryl Sandberg project: where she comes from and what it is exactly she is trying to do. There is the issue of Facebook, for example. It is playing an increasingly important role in our economy and our political life. Besides Sandberg and feminism, there’s co-founder Christopher Hughes, who recently bought the New Republic and fired one of its best writers, Tim Noah, possibly for the crime of referring to Jim DeMint as a “wingnut” (well, I never!). CEO Mark Zuckerberg is organizing a PAC, which among other things will focus on school reform (oh joy!). And Facebook, let us not forget, is not a good corporate citizen. Besides the sex discrimination, there have been other serious labor issues, its ruthless violation of privacy rights, its monopoly-like behavior, its playing footsy with nasty regimes like China, and more. And I won’t even get into the cult of Dear Leader Zuckerberg.

But it’s not just the Facebook connection that should give us pause. There’s also the fact that the corporate America that Sheryl Sandberg is such a zealous apostle for — ideologically, as we see from her reverence for Summers and Rubin; and practically, as we see from her career path — is committed to squeezing more hours and more labor from its work force, while paying less and less, and providing far less job security. Sandberg certainly hasn’t been speaking out about those issues — though given her place in the corporate elite, why would we expect her to? Even for the people at the top of the heap like Sandberg, the 24/7 on call madness leaves them with scarcely enough time for their families and, as Losse insightfully notes, no time for — and barely even any concept of! — pleasure.

Sheryl Sandberg has come under attack from many quarters, and I was annoyed by some of the more unfair and irrelevant anti-Sandberg arguments. She has servants? I’m shocked, shocked! She’s inciting “the mommy wars”? Except, well, she isn’t, and that troll-bait phase should be terminated with extreme prejudice.

But I’ve also been surprised at how little serious scrutiny she’s received from some otherwise thoughtful and critical-minded feminist intellectuals. I think Sheryl Sandberg is doing some good things. She can be an important ally to feminism. No other woman of her stature in the history of corporate America has openly embraced feminism as she has. She has a huge platform and a genuine popular touch, and is reaching countless women who never took a women’s studies class and find the whole subject of feminism scary and uncomfortable.

But after all is said and done, the lady remains very much a mixed bag. Uncritical celebrations are not in order.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee