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Sandberg angers feminists with do-it-yourself advice

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Sheryl Sandberg has angered the feminists.

Speaking at her alma mater, Harvard Business School, in 2011, the Facebook chief operating officer told the students: "If current trends continue, 15 years from today, about one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to."

The horror.

Sheryl Sandberg has angered the traditionalists.

She wrote, "As more women lean in to their careers, more men need to lean in to their families ... We need more men to sit at the table ... the kitchen table."

Oh, the humanity.

That Sheryl Sandberg has managed to anger such polar opposites within 172 pages of one slim volume shows just what a hot button the gender question is -- and just how willing Sandberg is to push it.

By now, everyone's heard of Sandberg's push to urge women to "lean in" to their careers, instead of backing off. The Washington, D.C.-born businesswoman's crusade started after a 2005 Women@Google event (Sandberg was a vice-president at Google at the time) when noted feminist Gloria Steinem invited her to speak at the Women's Media Center. That talk evolved into a 2010 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk, Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, that went viral.

Sandberg puts much of the onus for why there's a shortage of female leaders on women's shoulders. That upset the feminists. They say letting employers and government off the hook for leaving barriers in women's path unfairly blames women for their lack of progress.

Yet, this portion of the book contains Sandberg's most common-sense arguments. If women aren't making the progress in the workplace they should given their advanced education and other factors, it makes sense that women must change what they are doing. Men aren't going to. No one gives up power willingly, Sandberg argues, so it's unrealistic to expect that men, who fill the ranks of government and business, will make the changes needed for women to succeed.

Sandberg, 43, weaves her personal experiences and cultural references -- from Tina Fey to Arianna Huffington to Joe Biden -- with an impressive array of research to establish that women's progress has stalled. Change is desperately needed, she convincingly argues, not just for women's sake, but for the business world's sake and even -- yes, she dares to say it -- men's sake.

She calls on women to speak up, ask for what they want and not shy away from promoting their abilities.

Her argument thins when she takes on motherhood and the workplace. Her own experiences as a mother of two in a high-profile, extremely demanding role are inspirational. But then, progressive workplaces such as Facebook embrace innovation, and that includes workplace culture as well as technological developments.

Sandberg's elevated status in the company allows her to set her own hours. No doubt, that is easier to do when your title is chief operating officer or senior legal council rather than data entry clerk or waitress.

But her call for working mothers, who are too often powerless as individuals, to come together to demand change is overly idealistic. The truck-stop waitress with a handful of kids to feed is going to pay a higher price for making such demands than a COO will.

Sandberg's point is well made, though: getting more women into leadership roles will change the world and women's reality.

Maybe the followup to this book, Lean In Circles -- part mini business school, part book club, part support group -- that Sandberg is calling on women to form, will be the follow through to make that change.

She is donating her income from the book to establish Lean In, a non-profit organization that encourages women to lean in to their ambitions. (Some of the income will also go to other charities that support women.) It just seems doubtful that truck-stop waitresses will find relief any time soon.

Despite the double Harvard degree, the high-profile career, some of the lofty theories, Sandberg doesn't come across as arrogant. She acknowledges her good luck: a strong mother, supportive father, great mentors. And a husband willing to do more than his share of parenting.

That's another piece of great guidance she shares: "My advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands."

Studies show that one factor above all can help a woman succeed: a supportive partner able and willing to share the family work.

But she veers off again in her view that employers should feel comfortable asking women at work about their plans to have children. Her point may be to ensure women know having children need not limit them in their careers -- a point many women relegated to the mommy track would argue -- but asking the question courts claims of discrimination.

Lean In was inspired by seeing too many women lean out, give up when they see so little room for advancement. Sandburg started noticing female colleagues disappearing from the workplace about the time it dawned on her maybe feminist wasn't a dirty word.

In college, she and her overachieving female classmates believed feminism had achieved all its goals. Perhaps she has now discovered why the woman's movement stalled.

Even if all her arguments don't work, Sandberg has started a conversation about women at work. And that conversation is widespread -- from the New York Times to the Globe and Mail to feminist website Jezebel to Vanity Fair to 60 Minutes.

Can the revolution be far behind?

Julie Carl, Free Press associate editor, reader engagement, is not afraid to call herself a feminist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J10


Updated on Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 10:06 AM CDT: corrects age

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