Sheryl Sandberg's banal "lean in" advice does more harm than good

I had read only in passing about Sheryl Sandberg's controversial book on "women's empowerment", but up until this point had not seen any interviews with her.  She appeared on 60 minutes tonight.  Full disclosure, I have not read her book, but after watching this vapid and vacuous interview, I have no wish to.  It was a total fluff piece that made not one reference to the deeply embedded cultural biases and structural causes of sexual and gender inequality that continue to contribute to the stubbornly persistent gender gap in pay for men and women at every level of the economy.  

For what seemed like an eternity, Sandberg blithely smiled as she blamed the victims for their being under-represented in levels of leadership and influence while sidestepping the tough issues that contribute to that situation.  The interview focused on her admonition that women are insecure, they don't negotiate their salaries and just accept what they are given, and they feel bad about being ambitious and smart.  "Stop being so mousy!  Negotiate! Find the right man!" were Sandberg's banal solutions to women's under-representation in positions of influence. There is nothing new here with her diagnosis. There is no more depth to the interview beyond that she exhorts every woman to just do it as Nike would say, implying that their destiny is entirely in their own hands and that it is a matter of a lack of will that women don't run the world.

But women from an early age are sent messages that they are not valued for their brains or competence.  How do women have the self confidence to view themselves as valued for their minds and other talents when they are bombarded by messages from the media and all around them?  Women continue to be as objectified and have inordinate focus placed on their physical beauty rather than their intelligence. A recent critical article is a rare reminder about the dangers of telling little girls they are pretty without also remarking upon and encouraging their other talents.

How does  a woman learn how and when to negotiate her pay when the problem is not that they do not have a college education, but that problems still crop up once they've graduated and landed a job?  The 60 Minute piece correctly points out that more women than men are now obtaining college degrees.  That is true, the opening of the pipeline as blocked as before, but there is leakage in the pipeline which continue to reinforce sexual inequality.   For instance,  a lack of mentoring of female workers and informal social exclusion of even high performing women from informal networks that will help them succeed in their fields keeps women behind. 

Even as women have made dramatic advances in educational and career attainment, their domestic sphere duties still have not gone away.  One need only look at the sex of people featured in cleaning product ads on TV and in magazines.  Sandberg is lucky to be so wealthy that she can hire people to help with child care and tedious household chores.  Her only advice is to be more like her, find a husband who will help you with chores and won't stick you with all the childcare.  She says that even a single mom who is working multiple jobs can learn to be a better negotiator of her salary.  How and from whom would they learn these vital skills?

Not every woman is as lucky as Sandberg.  The problem is that society is not so enlightened and even as women have made great strides in educational attainment and careers, they are still expected to perform the bulk of the household chores and childcare. Rather than to use her primetime interview to advocate, oh I don't know, tougher child support collection policies, flexible hours for women who have children or eldercare duties, or to urge employers to provide childcare at the workplace, she just tells women they just got to find the right man. 

She seems not to be aware of the occupational gender segregation that is a major contributor to not only women earning less, but being under-represented in demanding and better compensated jobs.  The gender segregation is caused by a host of other factors including cultural stereotypes of gender roles and the fact that women take more time away from the workforce for childcare and eldercare duties that impedes their promotion chances at work, among other variables.  This is a seemingly intractable structural problem that is beyond the power of individual women to fix.

These are serious problems that require serious solutions, but Sandberg offered none.  She coyly suggests at the end of the interview that she might be interested in running for public office.  That thought stuck fear into my heart.  She may understand cooperate tactics and economic strategy, but she has no appreciation for the factors that conspire to limit women's succes, and is cruel to suggest that women's sucess are entirely within their own control.

Women in every occupational level, not just blue and pink collar positions, earn less then men.  It limits their life chances and the well-being of themselves and their families.  It's not that women have no contol over their own destinies at all, but Sandberg suggestst that they have more control than they do over much larger cultural, political, and economic forces.  It's kinda hard to lean in when you're exchausted to the point of passing out from working so hard to make ends meet.