Bossypants


Bossypants

Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg on feminism for the Now Generation

By Aishwarya Subramanyam  August 28th, 2014

“I should wear lipstick, right? This is for ELLE!” That would be Sheryl Sandberg getting cheeky before refreshing her make-up and posing stiffly with an I-hate-having-my-picture-taken look for our photographer.

She’s just been mobbed after a talk made gold by her usual easy confidence and glamour, hair perfect, hands expressive, voice superbly moderated for maximum effect. Soft-hard-soft-melt-aww. Everything she says on stage I’ve heard before from watching her speeches online: the jokes, the anecdotes, the punchlines. I don’t mind at all. She knows how to work a room, this one.

She knows how to work people. When she sits with me to talk, the COO of Facebook and self-made billionaire is completely focused, attentive, her eyes never leaving mine, body turned towards me, leaning... forward (see how I sidestepped that one). And girly. Sandberg has this giggly, (something I classify as) all-American charm to her, which is profoundly un-intimidating as long as you don’t think about it. So I don’t think about it.

It’s been over a year since Lean In (Random House India), her bestselling feminist call-to-arms, was published. The part-memoir, part-how-to about women getting out of their own way and succeeding in the workplace received a response both deafening and polarising, with a generous edge of uncompromising nastiness that is so popular these days. She was called a visionary and a traitor, the voice of a generation and a heartless victim-blamer.

A new edition out this year, Lean In For Graduates, tries to correct some of her detractors’ complaints, mainly of classism. “It features six new chapters and twelve stories. There is a story of a woman from India, one from China, one of a man leaning in. I don’t want anyone to think this is only for moms, or only for women, only for people of certain backgrounds, and so I think broadening the voices (was important).”

Taking the criticism from other feminists could not have been easy. But she did have the alpha on her side. “Gloria Steinem read the manuscript and did two things that were lovely,” Sandberg says. “One, she literally gave me line-by-line suggestions. Second, she wrote a note on top saying, ‘Take or don’t take my suggestions, this is your book.’ She’s iconic, she is American feminism, she is someone I’ve admired my whole life. To have her take the time but also give me permission to do it my way, that’s real mentorship. That’s what women need to do for each other. We need to help each other. But we need to not demand that every woman think exactly like we do. That’s not the point. The point is to say, I support you. Do feminism any way you want, just do it.”

Does she think that speaks to the Now Generation, though? Where Lena Dunham, warts and all, is the feminist icon. Where #GIRLBOSS, less Harvard grad, more rags-to-riches, is the new Lean In

“Why do we want one woman to speak for all? We never put that on men,” says Sandberg crossly. “I think we need voices for equality and they should take lots of different shapes and forms and cultures and contexts so everyone sees something that speaks to them. There are women who want to be directors or writers and they’re going to look at Lena Dunham and the power of what she creates – I know her and respect her deeply. And there are women who are into fashion and they’re going to look at Sophia Amoruso and say, I want to do that – I know her too, she’s great, and I’m actually in the middle of #GIRLBOSS. And there are women in the corporate world who are going to look at me. I say yes, yes, more! And there still aren’t enough. Think about the role models for men, to be any kind of CEO, any kind of athlete – that’s what we need for women.”

She won’t find argument from me on that. Besides, I’m fascinated with watching her speak, that tic she has of tossing her head slightly every so often like a horse impatient to win the race.

I didn’t read Lean In when it came out last year because it was such a phenomenon. I did read it before the interview, though, and I may not agree with all of it, but I do like it. It’s smart and sensible, throws light on Sandberg’s own struggles, and most importantly, shows and tells. The number of women I have seen putting their rising careers in neutral – because they are getting married, because they are pregnant or trying to get pregnant or have just had a baby, because they think that whatever next step life brings is going to be so huge and exciting that nothing will ever be the same again! is depressing. Why so eager to put yourself in a corner, woman?

But leaning in goes beyond the book. Sandberg really wants it to be a movement, “Women have asked me, okay I get it, I want to lean in, but how? Leanin.org really takes off from there. Even when we launched, we had sessions on there on how to negotiate, a professor from Stanford giving you a 20-minute lecture, worksheets that the Lean In circles can do together, how do you own a room, have presence, how do you communicate well with your body, how can you be ambitious, how can you use your time well, how do you think about your strengths, how do you run diverse teams. The reason it works is that it explains the practical skills of how.”

I ask if she thinks women should brag more, considering men typically talk the roof down after every single accomplishment. I have been told to brag more. So have you, probably. “I think male and female achievement should be fairly measured and fairly rewarded,” she says gently. “But it’s bad advice to tell women to brag more, because that’s not going to work. You gotta do it carefully. Men are allowed to negotiate, women pay a penalty for negotiating. You gotta know how to do it. Telling women to brag is a good way to get them fired.”

Much later, I realised that that right there was what made Sandberg’s manifesto so powerful. But of immediate context was the very public firing of The New York Times editor Jill Abramson in May this year. It is generally accepted that she was let go for being too aggressive in her management style, but where does that leave the rest of us mortals?

Sandberg has a different take, “You know what, I am optimistic. Not about what happened but that people are seeing things with more of a gender lens. It was very clear in everything that was written about Jill Abramson that it was about gender. Rather than the unchallenged ‘she’s so aggressive’. What’s happening now is that people are saying, Jill Abramson is too aggressive – oh wait a minute, she’s a woman, we say that to women. Whereas five years ago, we would have said Jill Abramson got fired because she’s so aggressive, without any different acknowledgment of that. Progress. Not enough, but progress.”

I don’t have the chance to comment on that extraordinary way of looking at the situation before she’s talking about her controversial campaign meant to eradicate the word ‘bossy’ from playgrounds where it’s used to bully little girls who try to take charge. “It’s like with Ban Bossy, there are tons of articles saying this is the best thing ever, tons of articles saying this is ridiculous and Orwellian, we shouldn’t ban a word. Every single article asserted that ‘bossy’ is a word used mostly for girls. We win. That’s it! All we were trying to do was say that ‘bossy’ was a word used mostly for girls. And the controversy did that.”

Sandberg is fierce about protecting children – hers and everyone else’s – from the idea that they cannot be anyone they want to be. So I tell her about Mattel’s newest stab at recapturing the little-girl market: Entrepreneur Barbie! She carries a smartphone and a laptop and wears a pink suit (of course). “Ha, no I haven’t seen that one,” she smiles, “But I do think it’s important to show girls there are options, and toys matter. One year, my gift for my daughter and all her friends were GoldieBlox, building blocks for little girls. Their ad is hysterical, you should look it up. [I did and it’s brilliant.]

In Silicon Valley I send my son to computer camp – it’s one week, 35 kids, of which five are girls. What’s depressing is that of the five, three were my niece and her friends. These stereotypes are so deep. We have to change them and I think every toy that tries to do that is helpful.”

But what about the crisis of masculinity that the world’s men seem to be suffering at the moment? Maybe crisis is too mild a word for it. Armageddon, perhaps. “You know, I don’t know why we can’t tolerate – encourage – the full range of human emotions in our boys and men,” she says. “I have a son and a daughter, they cry the same amount. My baby boy did not cry any less than my baby girl; by the time they’re 12, he’s going to cry less. That’s because he’s going to be told not to cry. Not by me but by others. Maybe even by me, when I’m not paying enough attention.”

And what if the daughter of Sheryl Sandberg came up to her and told her one day that she is not choosing to prioritise her career? Sandberg says herself in her book that we are standing on the shoulders of the feminists before us. Would she accept her own daughter making a contrary choice? “Absolutely, as long she wasn’t doing it because someone said she had to or that she can’t do anything she wants. As long as there is equal choice.”

Yes, equality. “Yes. We need to really believe that equality is possible and understand that it starts at the individual level. So if we want women to have equal jobs, it’s going to be person by person.

You are the editor of a really important magazine. [At this point I automatically make some sort of self-deprecating sound/movement/ gesture/facial twitch] You are! What you do matters because you’ve told other people it can work. So I think, if we’re trying to make societal change, we need to act both at the quasi-institutional level, and at the individual level.”

Now that Indra Nooyi has done us all a favour and destroyed the notion of ‘having it all’ completely, I’m only going to ask Sandberg how she keeps going. “I surround myself with awesome women,” she laughs. But that’s what the rest of us do!

Here is the thing we touched upon earlier that I find powerful about leaning in. It teaches you how to beat the system without at first radically altering it or yourself. Stand up a little straighter here, speak a little louder there, use a trick you didn’t know you had here, negotiate without antagonising there. Chances are you make one or several of the mistakes in the book on a daily basis (they are fairly broad). Once you’ve learnt to beat them all, start the revolution and the sisters will join you to rid the earth of men.

I’m just kidding. That’s not what feminism is, silly. Really. According to Sandberg, “I think we have to reclaim feminism. Yes there has been change, progress. But feminism to me means I am proudly, unapologetically, unequivocally, saying that it’s not good enough. That’s the heart of it, I am saying not enough, everyone, not enough.”

Enough said.

“I should wear lipstick, right? This is for ELLE!” That would be Sheryl Sandberg getting cheeky before refreshing her make-up and posing stiffly with an I-hate-having-my-picture-taken look for our photographer.

She’s just been mobbed after a talk made gold by her usual easy confidence and glamour, hair perfect, hands expressive, voice superbly moderated for maximum effect. Soft-hard-soft-melt-aww. Everything she says on stage I’ve heard before from watching her speeches online: the jokes, the anecdotes, the punchlines. I don’t mind at all. She knows how to work a room, this one.

She knows how to work people. When she sits with me to talk, the COO of Facebook and self-made billionaire is completely focused, attentive, her eyes never leaving mine, body turned towards me, leaning... forward (see how I sidestepped that one). And girly. Sandberg has this giggly, (something I classify as) all-American charm to her, which is profoundly un-intimidating as long as you don’t think about it. So I don’t think about it.

It’s been over a year since Lean In (Random House India), her bestselling feminist call-to-arms, was published. The part-memoir, part-how-to about women getting out of their own way and succeeding in the workplace received a response both deafening and polarising, with a generous edge of uncompromising nastiness that is so popular these days. She was called a visionary and a traitor, the voice of a generation and a heartless victim-blamer.

A new edition out this year, Lean In For Graduates, tries to correct some of her detractors’ complaints, mainly of classism. “It features six new chapters and twelve stories. There is a story of a woman from India, one from China, one of a man leaning in. I don’t want anyone to think this is only for moms, or only for women, only for people of certain backgrounds, and so I think broadening the voices (was important).”

Taking the criticism from other feminists could not have been easy. But she did have the alpha on her side. “Gloria Steinem read the manuscript and did two things that were lovely,” Sandberg says. “One, she literally gave me line-by-line suggestions. Second, she wrote a note on top saying, ‘Take or don’t take my suggestions, this is your book.’ She’s iconic, she is American feminism, she is someone I’ve admired my whole life. To have her take the time but also give me permission to do it my way, that’s real mentorship. That’s what women need to do for each other. We need to help each other. But we need to not demand that every woman think exactly like we do. That’s not the point. The point is to say, I support you. Do feminism any way you want, just do it.”

Does she think that speaks to the Now Generation, though? Where Lena Dunham, warts and all, is the feminist icon. Where #GIRLBOSS, less Harvard grad, more rags-to-riches, is the new Lean In

“Why do we want one woman to speak for all? We never put that on men,” says Sandberg crossly. “I think we need voices for equality and they should take lots of different shapes and forms and cultures and contexts so everyone sees something that speaks to them. There are women who want to be directors or writers and they’re going to look at Lena Dunham and the power of what she creates – I know her and respect her deeply. And there are women who are into fashion and they’re going to look at Sophia Amoruso and say, I want to do that – I know her too, she’s great, and I’m actually in the middle of #GIRLBOSS. And there are women in the corporate world who are going to look at me. I say yes, yes, more! And there still aren’t enough. Think about the role models for men, to be any kind of CEO, any kind of athlete – that’s what we need for women.”

She won’t find argument from me on that. Besides, I’m fascinated with watching her speak, that tic she has of tossing her head slightly every so often like a horse impatient to win the race.

I didn’t read Lean In when it came out last year because it was such a phenomenon. I did read it before the interview, though, and I may not agree with all of it, but I do like it. It’s smart and sensible, throws light on Sandberg’s own struggles, and most importantly, shows and tells. The number of women I have seen putting their rising careers in neutral – because they are getting married, because they are pregnant or trying to get pregnant or have just had a baby, because they think that whatever next step life brings is going to be so huge and exciting that nothing will ever be the same again! is depressing. Why so eager to put yourself in a corner, woman?

But leaning in goes beyond the book. Sandberg really wants it to be a movement, “Women have asked me, okay I get it, I want to lean in, but how? Leanin.org really takes off from there. Even when we launched, we had sessions on there on how to negotiate, a professor from Stanford giving you a 20-minute lecture, worksheets that the Lean In circles can do together, how do you own a room, have presence, how do you communicate well with your body, how can you be ambitious, how can you use your time well, how do you think about your strengths, how do you run diverse teams. The reason it works is that it explains the practical skills of how.”

I ask if she thinks women should brag more, considering men typically talk the roof down after every single accomplishment. I have been told to brag more. So have you, probably. “I think male and female achievement should be fairly measured and fairly rewarded,” she says gently. “But it’s bad advice to tell women to brag more, because that’s not going to work. You gotta do it carefully. Men are allowed to negotiate, women pay a penalty for negotiating. You gotta know how to do it. Telling women to brag is a good way to get them fired.”

Much later, I realised that that right there was what made Sandberg’s manifesto so powerful. But of immediate context was the very public firing of The New York Times editor Jill Abramson in May this year. It is generally accepted that she was let go for being too aggressive in her management style, but where does that leave the rest of us mortals?

Sandberg has a different take, “You know what, I am optimistic. Not about what happened but that people are seeing things with more of a gender lens. It was very clear in everything that was written about Jill Abramson that it was about gender. Rather than the unchallenged ‘she’s so aggressive’. What’s happening now is that people are saying, Jill Abramson is too aggressive – oh wait a minute, she’s a woman, we say that to women. Whereas five years ago, we would have said Jill Abramson got fired because she’s so aggressive, without any different acknowledgment of that. Progress. Not enough, but progress.”

I don’t have the chance to comment on that extraordinary way of looking at the situation before she’s talking about her controversial campaign meant to eradicate the word ‘bossy’ from playgrounds where it’s used to bully little girls who try to take charge. “It’s like with Ban Bossy, there are tons of articles saying this is the best thing ever, tons of articles saying this is ridiculous and Orwellian, we shouldn’t ban a word. Every single article asserted that ‘bossy’ is a word used mostly for girls. We win. That’s it! All we were trying to do was say that ‘bossy’ was a word used mostly for girls. And the controversy did that.”

Sandberg is fierce about protecting children – hers and everyone else’s – from the idea that they cannot be anyone they want to be. So I tell her about Mattel’s newest stab at recapturing the little-girl market: Entrepreneur Barbie! She carries a smartphone and a laptop and wears a pink suit (of course). “Ha, no I haven’t seen that one,” she smiles, “But I do think it’s important to show girls there are options, and toys matter. One year, my gift for my daughter and all her friends were GoldieBlox, building blocks for little girls. Their ad is hysterical, you should look it up. [I did and it’s brilliant.]

In Silicon Valley I send my son to computer camp – it’s one week, 35 kids, of which five are girls. What’s depressing is that of the five, three were my niece and her friends. These stereotypes are so deep. We have to change them and I think every toy that tries to do that is helpful.”

But what about the crisis of masculinity that the world’s men seem to be suffering at the moment? Maybe crisis is too mild a word for it. Armageddon, perhaps. “You know, I don’t know why we can’t tolerate – encourage – the full range of human emotions in our boys and men,” she says. “I have a son and a daughter, they cry the same amount. My baby boy did not cry any less than my baby girl; by the time they’re 12, he’s going to cry less. That’s because he’s going to be told not to cry. Not by me but by others. Maybe even by me, when I’m not paying enough attention.”

And what if the daughter of Sheryl Sandberg came up to her and told her one day that she is not choosing to prioritise her career? Sandberg says herself in her book that we are standing on the shoulders of the feminists before us. Would she accept her own daughter making a contrary choice? “Absolutely, as long she wasn’t doing it because someone said she had to or that she can’t do anything she wants. As long as there is equal choice.”

Yes, equality. “Yes. We need to really believe that equality is possible and understand that it starts at the individual level. So if we want women to have equal jobs, it’s going to be person by person.

You are the editor of a really important magazine. [At this point I automatically make some sort of self-deprecating sound/movement/ gesture/facial twitch] You are! What you do matters because you’ve told other people it can work. So I think, if we’re trying to make societal change, we need to act both at the quasi-institutional level, and at the individual level.”

Now that Indra Nooyi has done us all a favour and destroyed the notion of ‘having it all’ completely, I’m only going to ask Sandberg how she keeps going. “I surround myself with awesome women,” she laughs. But that’s what the rest of us do!

Here is the thing we touched upon earlier that I find powerful about leaning in. It teaches you how to beat the system without at first radically altering it or yourself. Stand up a little straighter here, speak a little louder there, use a trick you didn’t know you had here, negotiate without antagonising there. Chances are you make one or several of the mistakes in the book on a daily basis (they are fairly broad). Once you’ve learnt to beat them all, start the revolution and the sisters will join you to rid the earth of men.

I’m just kidding. That’s not what feminism is, silly. Really. According to Sandberg, “I think we have to reclaim feminism. Yes there has been change, progress. But feminism to me means I am proudly, unapologetically, unequivocally, saying that it’s not good enough. That’s the heart of it, I am saying not enough, everyone, not enough.”

Enough said.