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July 29 2013

Commercialization of 'Lean In' has turned message on its head

The Hill
Sabrina Schaeffer

Saturday I joined the largest gathering of female bloggers from around the country at the annual BlogHer 2013 conference. I was part of a panel on women running for office, where we discussed the many ways women are effecting political change and the tools you need if you’re interested in higher office.

While at the conference I attended a one-on-one interview with Sheryl Sandberg about her work, life, and “Leaning In.”

I’ve been a big proponent of Sandberg (see herehere, and here). When she first came on the scene speaking about women in the workplace I found her to be intelligent, pleasing and thoughtful in her assessment. Her message was not to offer public policy prescriptions or lament workplace culture; rather Sandberg focused entirely on how women could better help themselves succeed in the professional arena. It was a “self-help” style of modern feminism.

But with the release of Lean In — an Amazon Best Book of the Year selection — Sandberg’s message has become more commercial, more political and, frankly, less effective. 

As in the first few pages of her book, within minutes of her interview at BlogHer, Sandberg launched into the inequity of the workplace, overemphasizing the “pay gap.”

SHERYL SANDBERG: ... But what we want women to do and men is to believe that we can get to real equality, believe that men [sic] can have as much voice as men, women sitting at every table. We want to close the pay gap. Women get paid 77 cents for every dollar a man gets for a job.

LISA STONE: Or as was written ... can a pay 55 dollars for a hundred dollars worth of groceries? Because I'm paid 55 cents for every dollar.?

SANDBERG: That's exactly right. So we're running three programs, we have the lean in community which I hope you'll all join ...

STONE: And led national legislation.

How unfortunate. What a terrible message Sandberg — encouraged along by Lisa Stone of BlogHer — sent to a conference of 5,000 women. With absolutely no reference to any real research, Sandberg helped perpetuate the myth that women are only paid 77 percent of what a man makes simply because of her gender.

She knows this isn’t true, and if she doesn’t then she needs to get started reading (check out Diana Furchgott Roth’s Women’s FiguresChristina Hoff Sommers, or June O’Neill’s The Declining Role of Race and Gender in Labor Markets, for starters.)

The theme of her talk was “What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid.” Well, I’d start by having a real talk about the choices women often make. Women might be afraid to ask how their college major might impact their earning potential. Women might have legitimate anxiety about how to balance family and work and wonder how flexibility might impact one’s salary. There are real concerns about asking what trade-offs come with the choices we make each day.

Sandberg offers great advice to women: Don’t leave the workplace too soon, take a seat at the table, ask for what you want. But the commercialization of "Lean In" is watering that message down. It’s reinforcing the idea that women are a victim class, that sexism and baseless gender discrimination is rampant, and it ignores the real choices and opportunities women have today.

I hope Sandberg will take a minute to read IWF’s Dear Daughter letter, watch our video “Straight Talk About the Wage Gap,” and check out our "Lean In" event. Then maybe she and I can have an honest one-on-one conversation together.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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