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Is Facebook COO right to write about inequality?

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NEW YORK -- For a book that has yet to be released, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In -- part feminist manifesto, part how-to career guide -- has got a lot of people talking.

In the weeks leading up to the book's release on Monday, pundits and press hounds have been debating its merits. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called Sandberg a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots," and countless bloggers have suggested Facebook's chief operating officer is the wrong person to lead a women's movement.

"Most of the criticism has to do with the position she is coming from," said Susan Yohn, professor and chair of Hofstra University's history department.

Sandberg, 43, hopes her message of empowerment won't be obscured by the lofty pedestal from which she speaks. But is the multimillionaire with two Harvard degrees too rich to offer advice? Too successful? Does her blueprint for success ignore the plight of poor and working-class women? Does the book's very premise blame women for not rising to top corporate positions at the same rate as men?

And just how big is her house?

The questions keep coming largely because few people have actually read the book. But in it, Sandberg seems to have foreseen much of the criticism. The book acknowledges critics might discount her feminist call to action with an easy-for-her-to-say shrug.

"My hope is that my message will be judged on its merits," she writes in the preamble.

Sandberg recognizes parts of the book are targeted toward women who are in a position to make decisions about their careers. Still, she writes, "we can't avoid this conversation. This issue transcends all of us. The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream and encourage more men to support women in the workforce and in the home."

Published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead will be launched Thursday with a reception in New York City hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Arianna Huffington.

It's true Sandberg is wealthy. She also has a supportive husband. Mark Zuckerberg is her boss. And, yes, her home in Menlo Park, Calif., is 9,000 square feet.

But as a woman in Silicon Valley, Sandberg hasn't exactly had it easy, and her tale shows she's no armchair activist. After all, not many women would march into their boss's office and demand special parking for expectant mothers. But Sandberg did just that when she worked at Google. Company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin complied.

After Sandberg moved to Facebook in 2008, she became even more outspoken about the issues facing women in corporate America. At a time when other executives, male or female, have largely stayed quiet, Sandberg has delivered speeches on topics such as "Why we have too few women leaders."

And she's no workaholic. In an age of endless work hours, Sandberg is famous for leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. to spend time with her family. She does admit, however, to picking up work once her kids have gone to bed.

Of the many inspirational slogans that hang on Facebook's walls, her favourite asks, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Lean In is about pushing past fear.

"Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face," she writes. "Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter."

Sandberg peppers the book with studies, reports and personal anecdotes to back up her premise -- that for reasons both in and out of their control, there are fewer woman leaders than men in the business world and beyond. For example, the Fortune 500 has only 21 female CEOs. Sandberg is among the 14 per cent of women who hold executive-officer positions and the 16 per cent of women who hold board-of-director seats, according to Catalyst.org.

For minority women, the numbers are even bleaker. Women of colour, she writes, hold just four per cent of top corporate jobs and three per cent of board seats.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2013 B12

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