Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer: Class and the new anti-feminism


Perhaps just as the glass ceiling is being broken, women are yet again being blamed for their failure to succeed. Or so it seems according to Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is a NY Times bestseller. In it she contends that women fail to succeed because they lean back. Specifically, they refuse to make their voice heard in business or make men take on equal shares of domestic tasks at home. She recommends instead leaning in, speaking up, and simply asking for what one wants. If only it were so easy.

Sandberg’s book has been hailed by many as the new voice of feminism, advice from a smart successful, and rich woman who became one of the very few women to make it to the upper ranks of corporate America. Yet her story is not that of a typical American woman. It is the story of the power and privilege of being born white and to the right parents.

Sandberg is the daughter of privileged background. Her father was an ophthalmologist, and her mother had a Ph.D. Ms. Sandberg went to Harvard, secured her connections, and was successful in taking advantage of them. No one denies she is smart, hardworking, and deserves all that she has earned. But she got off to a start in life that only a few women–little alone men–enjoy, and is now in a position that few individuals are in now. By the time she writes Lean In Sandberg has already succeeded, a billionaire and the head of a company. It is a wonderful story and when she offers advice on how other women can succeed she seems to ignore the structural forces that many women still face.

Conversely, Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer has taken a tough it out strategy when it comes to women. She axed the work-from-home policy at Yahoo. In an effort to revitalize the company she demanded everyone come to work. Work-at-home policies have clearly helped women navigate child rearing and work. But Meyer seems clueless about the problems working women face. After she gave birth she remarked: “ Having a baby Is easier than I thought.” Of course it was. She had a nursery built at work for her newborn and she did not have to worry about paying for child care.

There is a reason why corporate America loves Sandberg’s book and Meyer–they take the heat off of them. It is not the fault of corporate America that women are trapped by the glass ceiling or do not succeed. It is because they fail to lean in. It is not the fault of men for refusing to do their fair share of domestic work. It is the fault of women for not asking.

Sandberg and Meyer live in a reality different from most women. They are not single divorced moms living on a shoestring. They did not grow up poor, Black, or Hispanic. They were not (as far as we know) victims of domestic abuse and they did drop out of college because they lacked money. Their biographies are very different from most women.

White women on average still earn approximately 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. African-American women earn 64 cents, Hispanic 56 cents. Studies suggest that up to one-half of all women have faced sexual harassment at work, with about 95%+ of all sexual harassment victims being women. In 2009 the median family income for a male-headed household was $48,000, for women it was $32,000. Women of color again fare worse. Women are more likely to be in poverty than men. Women are far more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than men. They come out economically worse after divorce than men (who generally come out economically better). In college sports, universities continue to drag their feet in providing equal funding for women’s sports.

Overall, 50 years after passage of the Equal Pay Act, nearly 50 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and slightly more than 40 years after Title IX Education Amendments, women still significant discrimination at work, home, and school. This is the reality of the world most women live in, not the one that Sandberg and Meyer occupy. But to listen to them it is the fault of women that they have not individually succeeded, ignoring the collective discrimination and barriers to success females continue to face.

The feminism of Sandberg and Meyer is that of rich white women. It is a view of the world that forgets the experiences of most women, but it is mostly a view that is cloaked in class biases. However, this would not be the first time individuals–male or female–have climbed to the top and forgot those at the bottom. It would also not be the first time those who have succeeded think that if they can do it why cannot the rest. While no one doubts the accomplishments of Sandberg and Meyer, one really needs to ask if they provide a guidance for success that most women can emulate.

.The point here is that neither Sandberg nor Meyer are typical of the average woman in America. Their story is one of power and privilege. They are rich enough now to have overcome the problems that most women face in their daily lives.