I wasn’t going to read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, because the first I heard of it was a critical review. I kept hearing about it, though; the phrase was everywhere, a friend said the book motivated her in her job search, and it was referenced by one of the (male)(I think they were all male) speakers at my sister’s Cornell graduation. So I finally requested it from the library and received it a week ago, almost three months after placing my hold.
I got a lot out of this book, but that’s because I more or less live in the same world as Sandberg. She writes from her experience as a privileged professional, to an audience of women who are either the same or aspiring to be. That’s valid, but many people are understandably irritated because her book is touted as the book for women, when really it’s a book that is primarily for white-collar professional women (or women who move in those circles) who have many of the same resources and opportunities Sandberg has had — and it says a lot about assumptions and class difference in our society that the people praising the book often don’t remember that this applies to only a fraction of the population. For women (and men) who don’t operate in that world, Sandberg’s message is irrelevant at best and insulting at worst. It’s hard to take advice to “lean in” seriously when the advice-giver appears to have no other obstacles besides that of gender, when for many other women, gender is only one of many roadblocks. I’m thinking of Alpha Manzueta, a woman mentioned in a recent NYT article, whose two jobs don’t provide her with enough income to keep herself and her toddler out of homeless shelters. Maybe having more women leaders would improve her situation, but maybe not; if women like her (or those who have more in common with her life than Sandberg’s) find the book demeaning and disconnected from their reality, they’re right to feel that way. Sandberg declares herself an advocate for women; I hope she’s also using her influence and visibility to improve opportunities for all women, not just those who are like herself.
I grew up in Silicon Valley and am still connected to many people in the tech industry; Erik tells me the tech world is more of a meritocracy than other fields, and perhaps he’s right. Sandberg seems to think so too. But the point is that even a meritocracy can’t work for you unless you can get your foot in the door, and some signs show this is becoming more difficult. There’s a recent map of San Francisco showing the number of minimum-wage jobs required to afford rent on a 2BD apartment in each neighborhood; in no place was that number lower than three — or actually, there was a place where the number was lower, and that was Golden Gate Park; my takeaway is that the only affordable “housing” for low-income San Franciscans is sleeping in the park. And this takes into account the San Francisco minimum wage, which at over $10/hour is more than $2 higher than its statewide counterpart. The housing insanity isn’t confined to “the city,” either; a similar map of Oakland shows median home prices of nearly $80K in one neighborhood, and the accompanying text indicates that prices across Oakland have gone up astronomically (76% or more) in the past year. And this in the city that the well-to-do people of the Bay Area have long considered “ghetto.” I don’t know about the South Bay or the Peninsula, home to many of the biggest tech companies (Apple, Facebook, and Google, for example), but as these more suburban areas are generally considered even more expensive than their urban counterparts, I don’t think we need expect them to be any more welcoming to anyone who isn’t already rich. This is the new tech bubble: a largely insulated space where CEOs can wear hoodies to work, merit is (perhaps) rewarded, and work/life balance is (perhaps) achievable — but thanks to the sheltering effect of money, it’s becoming harder and harder to infiltrate unless you can already claim some form of belonging, whether that be education or financial stability or connections; and, more insidious still, it’s becoming harder for those on the inside to see, let alone truly understand, the circumstances of those outside.
I was struck in skimming negative reviews of Lean In on Goodreads just how vitriolic and unhelpful many of them were. There was maybe one useful negative review out of every ten; many of the rest were rants that personally attacked Sandberg for problems she didn’t create (although she has, more than most of us, some power to try to fix them). Of course spite always says more about the person demonstrating it than the object of the hatred, and so perhaps too does gushing praise, and Sandberg has received plenty of both. But I don’t think she should be taken to task for her Harvard education or her children’s nanny; she speaks from her own experience, as should we all. Of course I say that as a bearer of much privilege myself, but there are other ways in which I am not privileged, and I speak from those as well. There is a problem with society and culture in general, where a few are somehow accepted as the speakers for all, to the point that many don’t even realize how much is being censored, suppressed, or simply ignored. But the answer to the disproportionate attention and acclaim given to a representative of the 1% is not to shut her up, but to also make space at the table (to riff on a metaphor used often in the book) for representatives of the other 99%. Even, perhaps, to make proportionate space, meaning that Sandberg’s voice could potentially be drowned out by the crowds of less fortunate women sharing their own stories of success (or lack thereof). This is where Sandberg has a responsibility, too — which I hope she realizes — to use her platform to recognize and raise up those who have none.