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Opinion

Can You Be Pro-Women and Still Think Sheryl Sandberg is a Tool?

Stephen Markley

7:54 AM CDT, April 9, 2013

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Can you be for female empowerment in the workplace, believe there is an unjust double standard for women in every aspect of life from assertiveness to sexuality, observe Equal Pay Day and generally be just feminist as f*** while still thinking Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” is a total tool?

Obviously, I think the answer is yes (or I wouldn’t have written this column).

I have not read “Lean In” but Sandberg has been popping up everywhere, from “The Daily Show” to NPR and everything in between, so I’ve had to listen to her pitch several times. From what it sounds like, Sandberg has basically decided to stamp a brand on the first week of conversation in a Women’s Studies undergrad seminar and other rudimentary, utterly obvious conclusions about gender inequities that most people not living as sister wives in Utah figured out in 1972.

Thus, you have Sandberg in interview after interview saying toolish things like:

“We’ve gotta teach young women to lean in.”

“And that’s why leaning in is the wave of the future.”

“We’ve started to lean in but we need to lean in all the way, as a way of life, so that when men ask us why we’re leaning in so far, we can tell them we’ve been leaning in this whole time. They were just leaning back so they couldn’t lean in to have a decent vantage point for leaning in to see how far we can lean in.”

I’d like to think that in the history of publishing there’s been at least one more bald-faced, obvious promotional tie-in masquerading as a campaign for social betterment than Sandberg’s “Lean In” groups, but I’m having trouble coming up with that example. The website features a picture of Sandberg, Oprah, some plebes of both genders, and then an abundance of opportunities for people to e-mail, Facebook, or tweet their friends with suggestions to buy the book (at least at “Tales of Iceland” we can admit we’re ruthless capitalists).

Had Sandberg set out to create a more easily ridiculable slogan to set back the feminist movement as far as society would allow, I doubt she could have thought of a better one.

Just because all this comes off as total prattling nonsense, doesn’t mean I necessarily disagree with what Sandberg is saying in between pimping her book. However, I also think many of the problems and issues she brings up are simply generational. In fact, every time I hear older women talking about the obstacles “powerful women” face, it feels a decade out of date.

Now, obviously when a heterosexual white male says something like this, we should all be skeptical. However, this heterosexual white male cannot help but think of his own professional career, which has been cultivated and propelled almost entirely by women. I think about:

• My first writing job at The Miami Student where I served under two editors-in-chief, both women, who did not take shit from me (or, well, they did; they just made me eat it off a plate later).

• My job at Cars.com where my direct bosses were men but four of the most vocal, assertive, and fun people on the small editorial team (of a car blog!) were women.

• My gig as a columnist, where I was hired and reared by the matriarch of RedEye, Tran Ha, who no one would accuse—without any kind of resentment—of being anything but the smartest person in the room.

• My book, which was picked up by a female agent, bought by an independent publisher run by a woman, where I worked with multiple women, from copy editors to publicists.

• My recent deal to write several short e-books, dreamt up by a woman who runs her own company while traveling the world doing freelance digital marketing and generally being badass.

• My general dating life, which, from high school to the present, has been replete with ambitious, smart, driven women (who happen to be babes, which is the center of the venn diagram I like to hit; and if that's chauvinism then just call me "Rush Limbaugh").

In other words, women are to blame for this very column. So you’ll have to excuse me if my personal experience has clouded my objectivity, but I look around at all my friends—those mentioned above and many more besides that—who make Sandberg’s thesis feel like something directed at the characters on “Mad Men.” Once again, this is not to say sexism has been vanquished or there's no such thing as a gender wage gap, but I just feel like I know too many women, who are as smart, capable, fun, interesting, and in charge as any man I know, and if they all are harboring this massive reservoir of insecurity requring Lifetime-style discussion circles than they’re hiding it extremely well under all the highly impressive shit they’re doing with their lives.