It took Sheryl Sandberg a long time – “too long” – to realise she was a feminist, and even longer to say it out loud. As chief operating officer of Facebook, she is among the most high-profile executives in the world, the more so for being female. Most of those in her position, she says, barely admit to being women, let alone feminists, so her decision to publish Lean In, a book of feminist advice for women in the workplace, constitutes a radical departure. “I wish I had done more earlier,” she says. “I wasn’t brave enough.”
We are in a windowless room in Facebook’s Palo Alto HQ, where Sandberg is drinking from a huge Starbucks cup (she used to be on the board at Starbucks) and exuding that slightly gimlet-eyed cheerfulness one associates with corporate advancement. The furore surrounding Lean In has been ferocious and not all of it to do with the book. Sandberg, reported to be worth around $400 million, annoys a great many people. Quite apart from the money, she works for a company with an intractable sense of its own “transgressiveness”, a self-image that sits awkwardly alongside the wealth of its founders and the sometimes moony-eyed devotion of its staff. She talks in the kind of inspirational business-speak that makes activists sneer and recoil. And one gets the sense she has jumped into a decades-old debate with an innocence – of how factional it is; how influenced by other political assumptions – approaching naivety.
What she is not, for the most part, is wrong. The main criticism of Lean In has been that Sandberg “blames” women for not getting ahead, which she categorically doesn’t do. Instead, she identifies behaviours exhibited by women in the workplace – an unwillingness to ask for more money; a tendency, in meetings, to hold back; a conservatism in estimating their self-worth – as the warping effect of historical and ongoing gender bias. Guys in her office go for promotion when they have a fraction of the necessary skills, she notes; women, by and large, wait until they have 100%. And wait to be asked, or rather, cajoled into applying.
“I give a lot of negotiating advice, which has the principal property of saying, understand the biases against women and use that to your advantage in negotiation. You can’t negotiate exactly like a man, it won’t work. Take the things you know. There’s an inherent contradiction in writing a book which has the goal of getting rid of gender stereotypes and telling people to acknowledge and use the gender stereotypes. I see that. I try to acknowledge that in the book. I’m a pragmatist. I want this to get better. I want women to get paid more. I want to teach them to negotiate so they get paid more.”
It is odd that someone as determinedly uncontroversial as Sandberg should have written a book like this, which is also the reason for Lean In’s significance. What Sandberg is saying is valuable precisely because it is her – speaking in the language of corporate conservatism – and not Barbara Ehrenreich saying it.
The book grew out of a TED talk the 43-year-old gave about women at work in 2010, which generated a huge response, positive and negative – although the negative was mainly from male executives warning her not to make an issue of gender, rather than, as now, other feminists deriding her credentials. Among the most savage of the recent reviews, Allison Pearson in the Telegraph points out Sandberg’s failure to address “the fastest-growing trend among professional women … involuntary childlessness.” In the Guardian, Zoe Williams calls the book spineless and “infantilising”. Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times, writes that Sandberg “doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign”. The reaction seems to be that it means well, but is in effect empty marketing.
All underestimate how reactionary the crowd she’s addressing is; this is not a book aimed at the well-versed in feminist polemics. It’s for those operating in a commercial realm so unevolved that the book, far from being meek and obvious, is strident to the point of hysterical.
Before she gave her TED talk, the message from Sandberg’s male peers was clear: “It would be the official end of my career. Once I gave a talk on women, I would be a ‘woman executive’. You can’t possibly care about women’s issues and be a serious business person.”
Sandberg thought it over, and came to the conclusion that, in fact, the only way to talk about it was as a business issue: that companies were losing valuable talent because of their problem with women, and mothers in particular. “The tipping point for me,” she says, “was watching men and women I managed over the last 15 years. No matter what I did, the men started to get ahead of the women. At every step, their foot was on the gas pedal and they were leaning in and women were leaning back.” Of Yale alumni who had reached their 40s in 2000, she says, only 56% of the women remained in the workforce, compared to 90% of the men.
Sandberg herself has been known to lean back, and admits to a bad decision she made in her 20s. After graduating from Harvard – her senior thesis was on the economic impact of domestic violence – Larry Summers, her thesis adviser, encouraged her to apply for international fellowships. But while she would love to have gone to Europe, she writes, she rejected the idea “on the grounds that a foreign country was not a likely place to turn a date into a husband. Instead, I moved to Washington DC, which was full of eligible men.”
Wow. “Yeah. I know. Pretty shocking. And you know,” Sandberg smiles, “that didn’t work out so well.” (She married at 24 and divorced a year later. She is now married to David Goldberg and they have two children).
Sandberg worked for Summers as his chief of staff at the US treasury for five years, then when Bush was elected and they were all out of jobs, she moved to Silicon Valley. It wasn’t an obvious time to board that train. “People thought I was nuts. It was 2001, so the bubble had crashed and no one was hiring.” It took her a year to find the right job, “and, yeah, I got a little nervous”. Things began to look up, and when Eric Schmidt hired her at Google, he persuaded her to take the job by asking her to consider which of the companies trying to hire her had the greatest potential for growth. She took the risk and joined Google.
It was during her negotiations with Facebook that Sandberg suffered a bout of timidity; she was reluctant to ask for more money. And for good reason – the remuneration package, she says, struck her as fair. More than that: “I thought it was a terrific offer! Perfectly great!” (One can only imagine.) She also wanted the job. It was only when her brother-in-law and husband pointed out that no man in her position would accept the first offer that she went back to the table, and told Mark Zuckerberg that, since he was hiring her in part for her negotiating skills, it would be a bad advertisement if she didn’t use them. She came out of the meeting with equity in Facebook.
So, if she hadn’t negotiated, she wouldn’t be worth anything like the amount she now is? “I don’t remember exactly the back and forth, but yeah. I would be in a different place. I’d still have been very well off – no one should feel sad for me.” I assure her they don’t.
“But what’s interesting,” she says, “was that when my brother-in-law and my husband were saying ‘negotiate, negotiate, negotiate’ – when I finally said OK I’ll do it, because no man would take the first offer, I then thought to myself, I felt like I needed a justification for doing it. And it turns out that’s what the data says: men can negotiate without apology or justification. It’s expected. If women negotiate, they need to justify it. It can’t be that you want more for you. Because that’s what men get to do.” As she writes in the book, “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”
This brings us to the Facebook board, which until Sandberg joined, four years into her tenure, didn’t have a woman on it. Facebook is a liberal company in the conventional tech style: staff can pick up bikes and deposit them anywhere on site; all the food – burrito bar, smoothie stand – is free, except for the sushi restaurant. In the main atrium, there is a “graffiti wall”, where staff can express themselves in felt tip with earnest peons to the company. In the courtyard, there are “fire pits” to hold meetings around that could have come from the mind of Armando Iannucci. Even the doors are in theme, made to look like garage doors as a tribute to the company’s origins.
Above all, no one has an office, not even Sandberg or Zuckerberg, so that, as she says, traditional power structures are undermined. And yet until recently, Zuckerberg was defending the all-male board as a function of the company’s meritocracy. “We have a very small board,” he told the New Yorker. “I’m going to find people who are helpful, and I don’t particularly care what gender they are or what company they are. I’m not filling the board with check-boxes.”
According to Sandberg’s reasoning – that informal mentoring within offices promotes men over women, so they are in place for the top jobs – Zuckerberg’s response just isn’t adequate, is it?
“I mean, I, I, I don’t know exactly the answer to that question. I don’t think he ever meant it the way you’re taking it now.” But has his position changed? Did he (to use the kind of language favoured here) go on the journey with her?
“Look, I think I’m growing and learning. I’m in a different place on these issues than I was five years ago. When I joined this company, I’d never given a really public talk on being a woman. And so I’m growing and changing and I think he is along with me. But it would be a mistake to say I’m leading and bullying him along. I mean, I think it goes more the other way. He’s leading. Mark’s fearless. Mark has a big vision of how the world could be different and he puts himself out there to make it different, and he has encouraged me every step of the way. I mean, Mark read the book and said, ‘I want to talk about the plans for the book, ‘cos I’m certain they’re not big enough! This is important, Sheryl! Do more!’ This is not me leading Mark. This is Mark pushing everyone around him, including me, to be bold. I’m grateful for that.”
It’s true that Facebook always had generous maternity and paternity provisions. Sandberg caused a stir when she admitted leaving the office at 5.30pm, so she could see her children for dinner. (She starts work again after they go to bed) A week after I see Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo who famously returned to work two weeks after having a baby and who the word “feminist” seems to bring out in hives, banned all Yahoo staff from working at home. It was seen as a regressive move, but Sandberg won’t say much beyond, “I make it clear in the book that not all the advice is applicable in every situation.” (Early at Facebook, when Sandberg asked Zuckerberg how she was doing, he said that my “desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back”.)
When it doesn’t involve criticising someone else, she can be expansive on the subject of work/life merge, as it’s now called. “People ask: does Facebook have flex-time? I’m like, if we had flex-time, everyone would feel chained to their desk. We have no time. I mean there are people who work here who I didn’t meet for years because they never came. No one had ever met them. They worked here and were great and delivered great products. We have amazing amounts of flexibility and that’s because we don’t have a traditional power structure.”
Does Facebook have a daycare centre? “We’re not zoned for daycare.” (One forgets: daycare is irrelevant when you can afford nannies. “And people have done very well here financially, so they can afford the help they need.”)
There will be those who find this too obnoxious to bear; the superwealthy telling the rest of us how to get along better. But given the dearth of women CEOs, it seems absurd to criticise Sandberg on the grounds that her advice doesn’t translate to the lower end of the scale. She is talking about getting into the boardroom. But I wonder if Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is in part a response to her guilt about having made so much money; the need to do something in the public interest.
“Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m funding leanin.org myself. Personally. For now. And if it gets really successful, I won’t be able to and that would be awesome! Because I want to use some of the resources I have to help other women.”
She has found a mentor in Gloria Steinem, who read the book and offered suggestions, and whom Sandberg was probably surprised didn’t act as a surer passport to approval from other feminists. “I feel very close to her and I feel very lucky. She changed my life. She read every word of that book; she called me with comments, she sent line edits. I saved them all. And I think she thinks that all of the things I’m doing, and that everyone is doing – she just wants to see action … and people taking this seriously and every individual treated as they should be.”
To accompany the book, she is inviting women to join “Lean In circles”, a kind of group life coaching with worksheets. In Sandberg’s own home, her daughter’s early management skills are banned from being described, by her son, as “bossy”. In the office, she is encouraging men to seek out female mentees and understand what happens when discreet networks fall along gender lines. She has even inspired her mother. “She’s turning 70 in a year and a half, and she’s going to get bat mitzvahed. Because when she was growing up, her brothers got to and she didn’t.” There are worse uses for this kind of sales acumen. Sandberg smiles. “And I think that is her leaning in.”