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Why Are Women Cheering Sheryl Sandberg's Fall?

Vivia Chen

December 3, 2018

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Who knew the knives would be so ready and sharp?

First, let's be honest: A lot of us were waiting for Sheryl Sandberg to trip and fall. Ever since she catapulted to fame with her Lean-In TED talk eight years ago, becoming an overnight feminist sensation, she really didn't have anywhere to go except down. 

And down she went.

As the New York Times reports, the evidence keeps piling that she, along with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, put profits before ethics, allowing Facebook to be used to disrupt elections, promote fake news and ignite hate around the world with deadly consequences.

And, oh, notwithstanding her nice-girl image, Sandberg turned out not to be so sweet after all. Despite earlier denials, she finally fessed up to knowing about (sort of) hiring a Republican operative to spread lies about George Soros. (It's also come out that she asked company staff to dig into Soros' financial interest in Facebook.) And when Facebook security chief Alex Stamos told company board members about Facebook's failure to stop Russian misinformation, Sandberg berated him: "'You threw us under the bus!' she yelled at Stamos, according to people who were present," reports the Times. (She later apologized.)

So how are women reacting to Sandberg's transformation (again, seemingly overnight) from women’s icon to the bitch of the C-suite? Well, some are eagerly throwing her under that very same bus.

As New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior describes it, Sandberg was a "Gloria Steinem-Amelia Earhart-Oprah Winfrey Thanksgiving turducken." Now, however, Sandberg has shown her true colors: "The shrewd, intensely political chief operating officer" — most definitely "not the intrepid Wonder Woman we’d been reading about."

While Senior's criticism is well-reasoned, much of the slings and arrows directed at Sandberg are not. In fact, some of it is mean and vindictive—as if women have been waiting for this moment to settle a score with the Lean-In goddess. 

In The Nation, Mari Uyehara writes gloatingly, "Lean-In Has Been Discredited for Good," because, for Sandberg, "the demands of capitalism overtook that of feminism." Uyehara also gives us an updated list of female writers who are twisting the knife into Sandberg: "Jezebel snarked about 'leaning out,' The Atlantic chided Sandberg for actions that 'just don’t mesh with the girl-power clichés that pepper her book,' and Jessa Crispin, in The Guardian, contended that: 'Feminists gave Sheryl Sandberg a free pass. Now they must call her out.'"

And Bitch Media calls Sandberg a "scam," putting her into the category of "gender traitor," along with Tiger Mom Amy Chua. Both Sandberg and Chua "filled millions of women’s heads with the idea that they could easily get a greater share of that power and security if they simply tried harder—and if they didn’t succeed, well, it was their own fault."

Much of the criticism is a rehash of what we've heard before—that Sandberg represents privilege, that her advice was geared for women who wear fancy suits and sit at conference tables, that it put too much onus on women, that it's a non-inclusive, non-intersectional type of feminism. In short, it's the whole kitchen sink.

And now that Sandberg has stumbled mightily, it's clear that Lean-In is a fraud and a fail. So women who opposed all that Lean-In stuff are vindicated. Told ya!

I, for one, am not joining this chorus. Why do we want the Lean-In message to fail? I thought it was a largely positive one, urging women to take more charge of their careers and lives.

As for it being pitched at an elite sector? Well, yeah, so what? Did she claim to be advisor for Everywoman? Should she be? I don't think we expect Jack Welch to speak to plumbers and truckers in his books.

Which brings me to the question of what women expect from each other. 

Look, I understand Sandberg is a disappointment, that she's not the moral visionary, the great promoter of women we had hoped. At the end of the day, she was a smooth corporate operator, like most guys who make it to the top of the heap.

But let's also be honest that we women are awfully tough on each other. We cheer women who've navigated successfully in a man's world, yet we're deeply suspicious about their motives and methods. Did they sell their souls to get there? We want to hear women's formulas for success, yet we can't help tearing them apart.

Even today, young women at law firms tell me that they don't regard the female partners as role models. Often, they tell me those women are cold careerists with no personal life or bad moms who ignore their children. They tell me that's not who they want to be.

Why are women so hypercritical of each other? I think it's because women who've risen to the top are still anomalies. It's hard not to be threatened by women like Sandberg because they've beaten the longs odds while the rest of us struggle. So we pick them apart, digging for imperfections in their personal and professional lives. 

vchen@alm.com

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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