There are certainly substantive critiques to be made about Sandberg’s book. “Lean In” is mostly tailored for married women with children and may not resonate with women who aren’t upper-middle-class or elite, something Sandberg acknowledges up front: “The vast majority of women are not looking to lead in the workplace, but are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families.”
Critics have also knocked Sandberg for putting the onus on women to lift themselves up, rather than blaming society for being sexist. But in her book, she frequently identifies how internal and external forces keep women from advancing in their careers. She also supports structural change, citing economic inequalities, discrimination, and the lack of paid maternity leave and affordable child care as problems that need to be addressed.
And yet, swift and biting attacks have become the default for feminist discourse, so much so that writers at Forbes, at the New Republic and in The Washington Postdidn’t even read “Lean In” before writing about its presumed flaws. (Yes, Sandberg’s TED Talkthat inspired the book has been widely watched and publicized, but eagerness to get shots in shouldn’t be more important than doing your homework.)
In this kind of culture, the snarkiest takedown wins. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has called Sandberg a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.” In USA Today, Joanne Bamberger wrote that Sandberg wants women to “pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps.” (Sandberg does not discuss fashion or her shoe choices in the book.) Sandberg’s foray into workplace inequities has been framed as a catfight between herself and Anne-Marie Slaughter, of the blockbuster Atlantic article “Why Women Can’t Have It All.” Melissa Gira Granteven implied in The Post that Sandberg wrote “Lean In” because of sheer selfishness: “She had it all — a husband, children, a beautiful home, a seat on the board of a billion-dollar company, a nine-figure net worth of her own. But there was one thing Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have.” Because if there’s anything wealthy women are desperate for, it’s the chance to lead a social movement.
The detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience. When was the last time you heard someone with a platform as big as hers argue that women should insist that their partners do an equal share of domestic work and child care?