What Sheryl Sandberg got wrong about the glass ceiling

Facebook's outgoing COO is an inspiration to women, but her way to tackle gender inequality is flawed

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's outgoing COO. AFP
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Sheryl Sandberg is stepping down from her role at Facebook to focus her energies on philanthropy and, notably, women’s advocacy. As one of the most senior and most powerful women in tech in the world, and through the reach of Facebook and Meta, she has undoubtedly impacted the lives of millions of women around the world in different ways. Meta estimated its monthly active users in December 2021 as 2.91 billion, and about 44 per cent of those (1.3 billion people) are female.

In 2013, she published Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller and has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. It was followed by the establishment of LeanIn.org, a foundation to encourage women to step up, following the principles of her book.

Indeed, the premise of this new wave of feminism, which was part of a driver of a bigger movement of corporate feminism and “women’s empowerment” was that women just needed to step up. Or, as the title suggested, to simply lean in. And that meant at the boardroom table or the dining table. Women could help make things happen by asserting themselves and inviting themselves into conversation. Want a pay rise? Ask! Want to be COO? Ask! Want to chat to the boss? Ask!

This follows, of course, a popular truism, albeit one that I personally subscribe to: “Don’t ask, don’t get." And in a world where women are often implicitly told to take up less space (particularly in places where decisions are made), and where women with opinions are often abused and insulted, there was undoubtedly a role for giving women a manifesto according to which they could recalibrate their expectations of themselves, and shift their own frame of reference of what they could and should be achieving.

The focus on empowerment has been a con played on women

But even then, one cannot shake the feeling that Lean In, in at least one big respect, missed the mark. Individuals have ownership over their own attitudes, actions and goals. But these do not come out of a vacuum, and nor are they asserted in one. To talk about individual responsibility without addressing the context in which it is exercised is at best strategically ineffective – it can only have a limited and short-term impact within the constraints of that individual woman’s context and privilege. This is something that Sandberg herself conceded later. When her husband passed away, she described how the fact she had money for childcare support and a supportive husband meant she had the time, energy, counsel and focus to be able to lean in. Something that many – perhaps most – women simply do not have. In this context, telling women to lean in is not empowering and does not create change. To truly empower women is to change the context and ensure a woman is enabled.

Which means that placing the responsibility on individual women – without addressing the structures in which they operate – is in fact more than just ineffective or short-termist in a strategic perspective. It can also be counterproductive. It leaves women disillusioned that the fault may lie with them when things do not change. And worse, it absolves corporations, policymakers, power-wielders and society in general from making any actual change. It is as important to change the system as it is for individuals to empower themselves.

For example, even when women do ask for promotions, they are less likely to be promoted. We know from gender pay gap analysis that despite asking for pay rises, women simply earn less. Prohibitive assumptions are held about women of childbearing age or of mothers that they make less reliable employees, or that they will be less committed. And if you simply can’t get into the boardroom, what point is any advice to lean in? If your name is “different” and you can’t even get a job interview, if you don’t have a degree even though you could do the job, if you have a disability and the workplace is not accessible and so many other systemic and structural issues, the advice to lean in is both useless and insulting. And then if women don’t succeed, it opens the doors to victim-blaming.

Business people in large modern meeting room. Getty Images

The focus on empowerment has been more recently described as “confidence culture” – or perhaps you could describe it as a confidence trick, a con played on women that all they need to do is “empower themselves”. And if they don’t, they are to blame.

We see similar trends in the dialogue around ethnic minorities: that they should stop being victims. On the other hand, in both situations some people say that it is simply the system that’s the problem.

Without recognising that both have a role to play. Yet, people seem to fall into one or other camp – either it’s all about the individual or it’s all the system. When in fact you can and must tackle both.

This requires us to look at ourselves as individuals, but also to look at the systems and society in which we undertake our own individual journeys, and all the factors that shape it.

It’s time to stop putting the onus on those who are already suffering inequality. It’s time to start changing the structures. Women who have made it despite the barriers are free to celebrate their own success. But what the rest of us need is a fundamental change to the system.

Published: June 10, 2022, 9:00 AM