Sheryl Sandberg, Feminista

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has a new book out, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Descriptors such as manifesto and feminist are being thrown about like baseballs at spring training, but Sandberg has also attracted a fair amount of criticism.

A March 13 Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column from Charlotte Allen, author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, points out a series of inconsistencies in Sandberg’s arguments about why women do not occupy more senior-level leadership positions. For instance — and here I’m simplifying mightily — Sandberg says women aren’t getting to the top because they really don’t want to. They internalize societal pressures and expectations and settle for lesser career paths or no career path at all.

Allen said Lean In “dissolves into a soup of contradictions that foster a single stereotype: Women can’t think straight.” Although I haven’t read the book yet, I wholeheartedly agree with that thought.

Contradictions, mixed messages and societal pressures notwithstanding, I think the real issue is that women are allowing themselves to be convinced of an idea, no matter what it is.

It’s not surprising that millions of women are pursuing high-level degrees, then getting into the thick of things and backing away from the business game like it’s a hot pan on a stove. I know from experience how easy it is to be swayed by others’ opinions about what you should want, how you should behave and what you should be devoting your energy to. But the common denominator is you. Therefore, only you are qualified to make those decisions.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating that young women, or men for that matter, not listen to their elders or not seek out appropriate mentors. That would deny oneself a valuable source of insight and information. Nor am I suggesting that there are no inequities that prevent women from ascending to the loftier realms of leadership. What I am advocating is that older people not blanket young minds with their frustrated expectations and desires.

Give these kids, or anyone, room to breathe, to think and form ideas, to explore, and to make up and even change their own minds about what they want. Remove the barriers and work to change the mindsets that throw barriers in women’s way when they are treading the slippery upward slope to the top.

Yes, women should take on career-advancing opportunities and challenges. Yes, employers should be receptive to the challenges women — and men — face balancing home and work responsibilities via paid parental leave, flexible work hours and what not. But neither Sandberg nor any other high-ranking female leader has a magic prescription to cure the complex issue of why more women aren’t running things in corporate America.

What Sandberg does have is a reasonable opinion and some ideas that there’s no harm in considering. There’s more than one way for women — and men — to be happy in the workplace. The diversity executive’s job is to make sure all of the options are on the table, and that the key stakeholders are open-minded to a mélange of possibilities and formulas for career and business success.