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Sheryl Sandberg and the Hypocrisy of Lean In

Supporting a cause can do good in the world, but inconsistency will bury your achievements, as Sandberg's found out.
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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wants to start a revolution for women in the workplace. She's written a book, done press tours, and recently gave the Class Day address at Harvard, touching on the difficulty of being truthful to yourself and to others.

One thing she failed to mention, however, is the difficulty of aligning yourself with a cause when either you or your company don't have the stomach to support it. Anything less than steadfast support can make your good intentions--or desire to generate some PR--look phony.

Sandberg has received flak for her Lean In concept and book because it seems like a manifesto for a privileged and limited few, as Ann Belser noted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"There has been much praise for Ms. Sandberg's book, which was researched by a team and written with Nell Scovell (whose name is on the inside cover). But it has mostly come from those with equally fabulous high-paying careers who do not come home to a pile of laundry and a dirty house." 

Connie Schultz in the Washington Post added her own two cents:

"Sandberg is the Harvard-educated chief operating officer of Facebook and a self-avowed feminist who wants to transform the role of women in the workplace. She is also incredibly wealthy--reportedly worth hundreds of millions--and is too often tone-deaf to her voice of privilege. This makes it hard to close the distance between lucky her and the women who could most benefit from her advocacy. It's a problem that plays out time and again in Lean In."

Perhaps Sandberg didn't intend to make that impression, but her actions and those of her employer continue to fuel it. One example is the growing concern over a perceived lack of diversity in tech and its hostility toward women. What did Facebook do when challenged by Rev. Jesse Jackson to disclose the race and gender makeup of its employees? Sandberg said it was important to share the numbers internally "and eventually externally," whatever that means. 

In another instance, a group of mostly female workers at a hotel near Harvard asked Sandberg to help them with their unionization efforts by holding a "Lean In Circle," or peer support group. Sandberg apparently declined.

It would be easy to quip that Sandberg didn't feel those workers were peers. A more nuanced assessment of both situations would be that what you might do as a private person can put your company in a tough spot.

But that's the problem: The world isn't subtle and claimed support for a set of principles, ideals, or concepts leaves little room for conditional associations. If you want to support equal opportunity, you can't decide it's too touchy a subject.

If you want to support the environment, then you and your company must be transparent with your challenges in handling waste and materials. If you want to support employees, saying they're the most important resources your company has, then you can't twist their arms over pay and benefits. You can do any of these contradictory things or others, but any benefit will quickly evaporate.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jun 4, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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