No good deed goes unpunished. That's the lesson Sheryl Sandberg has learned in the weeks leading up to the release last Monday of her self-proclaimed feminist manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
In remarkable waves, media commentators criticized the Facebook chief operating officer for being a woman of financial privilege and for suggesting that women should tackle their professional lives more courageously. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd bitingly referred to her as the "PowerPoint pied piper in Prada ankle boots."
Then the anti-Sandberg pendulum swung in the opposite direction, with the likes of Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer and co-chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Management Co. LLC, saying the book should be recommended reading for CEOs.
The brouhaha really has nothing to do with Ms. Sandberg's book. It comes down to her desire to launch a new feminist revolution that encourages women to take more career risks or take more challenges to advance and promote a more gender-equal workplace. She urges women to "lean in" – to be more fearless in their careers and overcome mental obstacles that may hold them back.
Yet, only after people stop focusing on her millions of dollars worth of stock from Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. (her previous employer), and her dual degrees from Harvard University, will they be able to see if her revolution has legs.
Can Ms. Sandberg make the F-word – feminism – sound less dirty? For the sake of all women in business, I hope so.
I have not always agreed with her views; I do not accept that there is an ambition gap, for example, and most women I know lean in to their careers with gusto.
Nor do I believe that women necessarily prioritize marriage over careers. In fact, many may need to focus on their careers above all else, especially if they are single parents or are supporting others.
Ms. Sandberg does not place the onus for women's advancement on women alone. In her book, she touches on the subconscious biases that permeate the workplace and illustrates the obstacles created by socializing girls to be supporters rather than leaders.
These issues create real barriers to women's advancement and it's shortsighted to shoot down a high-profile woman, speaking from a position of power, who wants to remedy these social ills to not only empower women, but also to help businesses succeed.
At the core of her proposed revolution is a website, Leanin.org, which she co-founded and which many skip over in this conversation. The not-for-profit organization, which officially launched in conjunction with Ms. Sandberg's book, offers online, educational information, stories by women – and some men – about their career experiences, as well as the opportunity to participate in "lean-in circles" of small groups that meet monthly.
Money from the sale of Ms. Sandberg's book will go toward supporting the Leanin.org website and community. It's not clear how much of her own money went into the endeavour, which has four full-time employees, and 40 volunteers, and is being run as a start-up venture.
Success, according to Leanin.org's other co-founder, Gina Bianchini, "is more women believing that they can achieve any goal – and then achieving it." Ms. Bianchini, who is also the CEO and co-founder of MightyBell, the platform that powers Leanin.org, said the organization wants to help women realize their individual, professional dreams and to help men support women, at home and in the workplace.
"Our ultimate goal is a world where what people do with their lives is no longer determined by gender, but instead determined by their passions and interests," Ms. Bianchini said.
It's a lofty – and appealing – message but can Leanin.org pull this off through small group conversations? Ultimately, real benefits for Leanin.org and women's advancement will be reaped only when more men buy into this agenda. Although Ms. Sandberg makes adoring references in her book to the domestic skills of her husband, Dave Goldberg, I no longer accept the logic that equality will arrive when men change more diapers.
"Women are tired of putting the challenge of women's leadership on only women, without bringing men into the equation," said Carolyn Lawrence, president and CEO of Women of Influence Inc., a Toronto-based group dedicated to the advancement of professional women.
"Women don't want it to be a 'women's issue;' they want it to be a 'people's issue,'" she added.
Some of the backlash to Ms. Sandberg's argument can be attributed to "battle fatigue," Ms. Lawrence said. She notes that Ms. Sandberg's gender plays a role in fostering this reaction. "Here's a woman who has made millions of dollars, who has decided to use those funds to inspire women to take action in their career advancement," she said.
"We don't attack Bill Gates, for example, for wanting to start a foundation and put his money toward something he believes in solving. I don't know any other woman who's made as big a commitment as her," she added.
Ms. Sandberg's message might not dramatically change the business landscape but it's a good start. Feminism in the workplace is ripe for rebranding, but few want to champion the cause. Consider Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who has said she doesn't consider herself a feminist because she doesn't have the "militant drive" or "chip on the shoulder" that some think accompanies that term. Ouch.
Generations of women have graduated from university only to find their professional accomplishments lag behind their male counterparts a decade into their career. If we want to see change we need to give Ms. Sandberg's ideas a chance, because her desire to see women succeed is not only good for women, it's also good for business.