It Took Losing Her Husband for Sheryl Sandberg to Finally Realize What’s Wrong with “Leaning In”

Admitting that you're wrong is hard, especially when you have tremendous amounts of privilege.
Publish date:
May 17, 2016
feminism, women, lean in, women in the workplace

Lots of us have profound awakening moments in our lives where we experience a sudden realignment of everything we thought we knew was true, and one such case is on display this month in the case of Sheryl Sandberg, who finally admitted that her "lean in" approach to life had some serious flaws.

Her 2013 book irritated a lot of critics, who pointed out that its bootstrapping approach to success for women assumed a lot of things — and one of them was that women in business would have supportive partners.

Sandberg, as many people know, lost her husband unexpectedly last year. She just gave a commencement speech at UC Berkeley in which she talked about his death and the intense way that grief tends to take over your life, and one of the things she talked about was how she suddenly became aware that her husband was a powerful ally in her life. Her bootstrapping advice didn't work for people in mourning, people unmoored by the loss of a partner — it didn't work for single moms.

It can be hard to admit that you're wrong, especially when you've built up quite a sizable brand around a concept or theory and you want to walk it back, but Sandberg did, in a post that highlighted how the sudden stripping of some of her privilege opened her eyes to the fact that she probably enjoyed many more advantages that might be coloring the way she approaches her professional life. What surprised me most about her piece was that she didn't simplistically say that losing her husband magically provided her with the perspective that all of her critics had brought up.

She recognized that there were elements of single motherhood that she didn't experience and likely never would, that she has the advantage of substantial private wealth, a socially normative family, and a large support network. But she argued that workplaces need to do more to protect parents and to create benefits and support networks to address the fact that there's only so much "leaning in" they can do, and that their budget for doing so is limited when they need to invest in the welfare of their children.

Her husband offered support that while she'd acknowledged and understood, she didn't fully comprehend. He backed her up when she needed bargaining power, he was fine with balancing work and home responsibilities, he was willing to take on more childcare needs as she wanted to build her career, he was willing to negotiate to allow them both to reach their life goals.

Single moms don't have the luxury of free childcare, let alone dual incomes, emotional support waiting at home every night, someone to help them manage their households and deal with the minutia of life. This isn't just about money, either: A single mom with a substantial income can still really struggle, as Sandberg learned. Take away the money, and the picture can get even more dire.

There are still a lot of problems with the "lean in" approach that Sandberg has yet to acknowledge, and I really hope that her willingness to admit faults here will perhaps be the opening of the door to a larger discussion. For example, the philosophy is still targeted at women in white collar jobs, and isn't really designed for women in other fields, including working class women who don't have access to the kind of opportunities that Sandberg and her colleagues do. You can't lean your way into better wages as a cashier at a fast food restaurant — but such workers still need class justice.

She also hasn't yet addressed the huge racial inequalities of leaning in, that women of color tend to be punished particularly hard for being "aggressive" and for "negotiating," two things she pushes for. Women are supposed to be easygoing and nice, and advocating for themselves results in getting dinged. It always will until people talk about the sexism inherent in the fact that the word "aggressive" means something very different in performance evaluations depending on the gender of the employee. A woman labeled as such is pushy and needs to watch her attitude, while a man is a valued employee, a go-getter.

Grief is a strange time. There is a floating, an oddness, a sense of readjustment. To lose someone so close is to feel like a moon has suddenly fallen out of orbit. It's a time of tremendous learning as you find out that so much of your life has been structured around someone else, and so many of your perspectives are shifting as a result of losing them. Sandberg's loss was wrenching, and something she will live with for the rest of her life, but as often is the case with grief, she's carrying something important out of it.

I really dislike sappy platitudes about "silver linings" and whatnot because the bottom line is that Sandberg learned this lesson as a result of the death of her husband, and that is a terrible, tragic loss to endure. But as she moved through the fog of grief and groped for a torch to make her way out again, it appears that she happened to grab one that would help her bring new understanding and perspective to her theories on women in the workplace.

All of us change and evolve over time, with grief accelerating those experiences. Not all of us, though, are able or willing to talk about these changes, to admit that something fundamental has shifted for us and our previous attitudes no longer fit.

I admire Sandberg for being willing to do that, and I hope that her next step involves taking a closer look at the many outstanding criticisms of "lean in," that she engages seriously with those and explores whether sexism is something women should be ordered to magically change on their own, or whether maybe it's time for us to do something collectively about institutional sexism. Over the last year, she's learned that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to raise a revolution.

Photo: World Economic Forum/Jolanda Flubacher, Creative Commons