Sunday, March 24, 2013

Is Sheryl Sandberg a role model? Short answer: I'll read the book

Is Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg a role model or not? An extra credit forum was posted this week in my women’s health class.

After viewing Sheryl Sandberg’s December 2010 TEDTalks presentation, I am concerned by the possibility that detractor Melissa Gira Grant is taking Sandberg’s message out-of-context to promote her own agenda.

To cite one example in Grant’s Washington Post commentary: Grant states that, for Sandberg, “the biggest threat to [women’s] ability to occupy a position of leadership is a woman’s desire to have a child.”

Grant’s statement fails to accurately represent what Sandberg said, at least in the TEDTAlks video, which is that women stop looking for opportunities to advance at work when they begin planning a pregnancy. As a result, I do not trust Grant to accurately represent Sandberg’s statements. I believe my best course is to read Sandberg’s book, Lean In, for myself.

One criticism that I thought valid, if accurate, was the restriction on sharing only “positive” stories among women in “Lean In Circles.” But I was unable to verify Grant’s claim.

I did note instructions at, that “Your Circle is yours. We encourage you to decide what works for your group.” Presumably this freedom of decision could negate any restriction such as Grant describes.

Grant raises a contention that Sandberg directs her focus only on corporate women. I found this argument also advanced in commentary by Atlantic writer Ellen Bravo.

In a piece titled “Many working-class women are already leaning in,” Bravo argued that all women would benefit from reflecting and acting on a question urged by Sandberg: “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” The commentary highlights efforts by retail, home care, hotel and restaurant workers to win changes in the workplace.

This is a tough one. And I think my best course is to read the book and see if it has anything relevant for an aspiring library professional who has never felt comfortable with the “corporate” setting. A promotional video at seems to suggest a far more inclusive direction than Grant and Bravo indicate.

Finally, arguments by unidentified detractors paraphrased in an article by CNN writer Todd Leopold seem to reflect the very dichotomy identified by Sandberg in her talk: men attribute their success to themselves and women attribute their success to others: Sandberg “glided to the top thanks to the help of powerful men” like Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

My answer: I think that few people ever truly rise to the top solely upon their own merits. I would hope that the workplace is more collaborative than that. Let us assume that Sandberg received help and support from these men and from others, women whom she acknowledged in the video as paving the way for her.

If these men chose to act as mentor to Sandberg, it was because of her strengths, which include two degrees from Harvard and an early career in public service. Are these mentors somehow less valid, or are Sandberg’s accomplishments more about them, because they are men?

Bottom line answer: Sandberg’s book is worth reading and then I will determine if she is a role model for me.

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