Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Open Letter to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in Response to 'Lean In'

Dear Sheryl Sandberg,

I am taking seriously the invitation you extend on page 173 of your book to continue the conversation you have begun with Lean In, on women and leadership.

I waited with great anticipation for your pre-ordered book to arrive at my doorstep on March 11th, and now that I have read it, I have much to say in response. My acquaintance with your philosophy of female empowerment began with your 2010 TED lecture. Like thousands of other women, listening to your talk kindled in me a general sense of self-empowerment. Your message of “sitting at the table” and “not leaving until you leave” hit home hard as things that I had clearly failed to do well enough in my own life. As a woman, as an emerging writer, and as someone who has straddled both sides of the fence, namely, the stay-at-home and “working woman” sides, I had many perspectives and angles that were begging to be fit into some philosophy. That your philosophy was an imperfect match I attributed to the fact that yours is mostly tailored to suit the woman in the corporate world. There were many contradictions and questions that I knew could not be addressed or clarified in a TED lecture or commencement speech. That is why I waited, truly eager to read what you had to say in the leisure and expanse of a book. I hope you will take my points of reaction to your book in the spirit of someone who wishes the same end-goals for women as you do, albeit from different pathways and perspectives.

As someone who has been “the only woman in the room” far too many times, it is natural that you have begun your efforts at bridging the gender gap in professional achievement by focusing on issues that you have grappled with yourself. Your spotlight on the issue of ambition and leadership roles fills a much-needed gap in the literature of women’s roles in management.  You make a compelling case for targeting the barriers of self-limiting behaviors and internalized stereotypes, because, as you say, “they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.” You offer valuable advise on how to navigate the terrain of the corporate world which is seemingly a minefield for women. Why then has (initial) support for your book not been unanimous? I offer a few explanations and suggestions:

The statistics surrounding the ambition gap (as quoted in your book) are alarming and not easy to interpret. As you point out, there is scant evidence of the ambition gap when graduation rates are taken into account, as girls out-earn boys in degrees at the undergraduate level (57% of degrees are conferred to girls) and at the graduate level (60% conferred to girls.) However, as you also point out, the ambition gap is a gaping morass when one looks at women several years after graduation. Even among Harvard graduates, the percentage of women in full-time jobs ten years after graduation is around 60%, and for women who have two or more children, it’s less than 50%. The ambition gap is therefore a robust phenomenon that’s hard to ignore. But the reasons underlying this gap are not so transparent. One interpretation of these numbers, and the one you favor, is that a few years after taking educational measures that reflect a prior ambition, women give up on their aspirations and “opt out” of careers by succumbing to negative messages and internalized stereotypes. You treat the ambition gap as predominantly an internal issue, and the thesis of your book, as stated in the introduction, is, “We can re-ignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution.” Many have mistakenly interpreted this approach as an indication that you view women as primarily responsible for their lack of a greater presence in roles of leadership.

Another source of criticism for your philosophy stems from the idea that there are many factors that contribute to the notion of ambition.
An alternate interpretation of the dismaying statistics surrounding “opting out” and the ambition gap that must also be given voice is that ambitions may be muted and squashed as a result of inadequate support in the work and home environments. To use the jungle gym analogy, many women who climb onto the jungle gym are forced to jump off when children arrive because their spouses and work environments do not adequately support their new responsibilities. And it’s very difficult to hang on to the bars of the jungle gym while also holding onto a baby or two. Much of the dissent about your book revolves around this issue.

My contention about the ambition gap doesn’t concern your particular approach to remediation, but rather, concerns itself with questions about the studies that generated the alarming statistics in the first place. Were questions in the studies posed in a general manner that assumed the status quo of inadequate infrastructure and stereotypical gender-roles for women? Or, were the questions skillfully worded to tease out only the element of ambition? For example, consider the question: “If you had the requisite infrastructure and support in terms of childcare and other domestic responsibilities (a condition that the average man takes for granted), would you pursue roles of leadership and greater responsibility at work?” My guess is that if the questions in the studies controlled for variables in the environment that are known to put a damper on ambition, the ambition-gap between men and women would be significantly bridged. Thus, the question still remains: Are women truly less ambitious, and more fearful of risks than men are, or are the differences in ambition an artifact of being too aware of the stereotypical gender roles and sub-optimal conditions in which women are expected to sustain a career? Perhaps the best method to fueling ambition in women involves a multi-pronged approach where women are urged and taught to dream big, as your book most certainly does, but to also create a home and work environment where those dreams are sustainable.

Many critics have also pointed out that a top-down method will not spark a movement. I am of the same opinion. In an essay on feminism titled ‘The Problem with Women,’ I wrote: “Top-down solutions are capable only of  ‘trickle-down’ effects, and not capable of larger brush-stroke changes. For a solution to bring about meaningful changes within a single lifetime, it must begin with a broad base that is common to women of all ages, socio-economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds.” That the focus of your book is primarily on educated women in the corporate world is another reason why I think there is such a polarized response despite the fact that everyone with an opinion wants the same end results for women! The media has already identified a Sandberg camp and a Slaughter camp. While I do not wish to add to the growing commentary about these camps, I will state for the record that I, like Prof. Joan Williams, think that you are both right. I see the shortcomings of your philosophy in its scope and not in its content. In other words, if your philosophy could be extended to include all women, you are sure to ignite a movement. To that end, casting the idea of leadership as a way of life rather than a role is imperative. When we cast the idea of ‘leadership’ as a role or position that women should aspire to, we create certain corollaries that develop from that viewpoint: If you are not in a designated leadership role, you are automatically in the category of the less empowered. You are not in control of the wheel. A “worker bee” who is satisfied with her level in the corporate hierarchy is automatically considered a non-leader when external labels of leadership are applied. And when exclusionary criteria are applied to groups within a group, i.e. women in non-leadership positions within the larger cohort of “working women,” there comes about unnecessary divisions among an otherwise homogenous group.

On the other hand, if leadership is viewed as an attitude, a mindset, a philosophy, and a way of life, it doesn’t leave anybody out of its spectrum. And from anywhere on the spectrum, one could still aspire to external roles of leadership.

Part of my eagerness to read your book stemmed from the desire to learn about the theoretical bases of your philosophy. Why, in your opinion, is the female sex beleaguered (other than the fact that she internalizes stereotypes)? Do you subscribe to the Marxist origins of early feminist thought? Or, what, in your opinion, are the historical roots of female oppression? I was especially looking forward to seeing how your senior thesis at Harvard on the economic determinants of social behavior might have informed your current philosophy. I was particularly hopeful that you would address the question of how, when there is a significant wage-gap between partners (a topic closely related to your thesis), the lower-earning partner could “lean in” (without much financial leverage) if doing so meant scaling back for the higher-earning partner? While these issues were not directly addressed in the book, you hinted at your theoretical leanings in your discussion of the “mommy wars” and the phenomenon of many women rejecting the label of ‘feminist.’ I would like to present my own analysis of these two issues.

The phenomenon of the “gender wars” or what the media loves to call the “mommy wars” is a predictable outcome of the way in which we have framed the issue of female empowerment within a broader theoretical framework. While Prof. Joan Williams (as you quote in your book) attributes these conflicts to a clash of identities and a clash of social ideals, I attribute them to the way we perceive gainful employment within the larger theoretical framework of feminist theory. A detailed account of my explorations is delineated in my essay ‘Is Feminism Elegant?’ In that essay, I explore the shortcomings of dominant feminist thought from the viewpoint of the aesthetics of theory. But briefly: The dominant modus operandi of the feminist movement is gainful employment outside the home. This method has been cast as the unique and singularly powerful pathway to female emancipation. In addition, this technique of empowerment is viewed as a principle of empowerment, and not a parameter, or one expression of a higher principle. Thus, by solely viewing women’s work outside the home as a means of empowerment, we have gravely undermined the value of women’s work inside the home - and by extension, the value of the woman herself. Furthermore, because we view the presence of women in the workforce as a manifestation of a principle of feminist empowerment (and not a parameter), we view those who do not practise it, and do not enter the mainstream workforce as somehow not sipping from the cup of empowerment. They are viewed as ideologically indifferent to the general feminist agenda, or worse, ideologically under-developed! Therein lie the attitudes of superiority from the “working moms” and the counter-attacks of attempts to induce guilt by stay-at-home moms. These judgments are thus predictable products of our perception that gainful employment is the singular method of female empowerment. If however, both gainful employment and domestic work were on equal footing in the theoretical framework of feminist theory, the mommy wars would diminish. Thus, to remedy this, perceptions must be changed. We must learn to view all work undertaken by women, domestic and otherwise, as having monetary value.

Like many others, I too reject the labels ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism.’ My objections are on linguistic grounds. A full exploration of my viewpoint can be found on my blogpost ‘The Feminine Mistake.’ In brief, I reject those labels because they have (negative) connotations of being the “other.” As someone who belongs to the group that makes up half the human population, I deeply object to being classified as the other.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advise: If you hope to ignite a grass-roots movement with your book and with, you must broaden your message to include ways in which a woman without a job outside the home can assume leadership roles within her domestic precinct. When I heard you say, in one of your speeches, that women need to “sit at the table,” my immediate reaction was to broaden your message to apply to all women: A woman needs to sit at the head of the family dining table, especially if she is the primary domestic worker. Then, when I read your book and saw that you ended chapter eight ‘Make your Partner a Real Partner’ with “We need more men to sit at the table…… the kitchen table,” I thought to myself: Damn - She beat me to the dining table analogy!

Finally, while many in the media are getting dizzy pointing fingers at your standpoint on female empowerment and supposed lack of experience with female oppression, I want to commend you for beginning a conversation and bringing about awareness regarding the intangible barriers that women succumb to in their professional lives. As you are someone in a position of great influence, I hope that you will eventually broaden your message of self-empowerment to target the intangible barriers that suppress the voices of women in their homes and daily lives.

Nandini Ramakrishna


  1. Dear Nandini,

    In the Indian context, some upper/middle caste/class women are fighting for an equal position at the dining table if they are working outside their home; most are still serving their 'masters' and family. If they are at home, the question doesn't even arise. Now at another level, it has become a priviledge for some to stay at home and not a choice for some who may want to stay at home. For many who work outside the home, their earning is still not theirs.

    Where as for a lower caste/class women, the choice to stay at home has never been available. To survive they must work and have always worked. But their income has never been theirs. They continue to be victimised by their 'masters/mistresses' at work as well as at home.

    And this is only one aspect I have highlighted, there are many more...The point I want to make is that the binary 'working women' and 'stay-at-home women' itself does not work in the Indian context, there are many layers to this definition depending on ones position and power in society. So I think Sandberg must be read in that narrow corporate American framework of a typical middle class American family. So too her thoughts on leadership; where I agree with you.


  2. Dear Bindu,

    Yes, the Indian context is different from the American one in many ways, but the similarities are striking:

    While in India we have class and caste boundaries that add to the nuances of women's empowerment, in America we have class, race, sexual orientation and non-normative gender identity issues that add layers of complexity to the issue of female empowerment - though class and race are the ones that receive the most attention. Recent statistics on earnings, for example, show that while Caucasian women earn 78 cents to every dollar that a man earns for the same labour, African American women earn 59 cents, and Hispanic women earn 69 cents...... And like it is in India, among women of the working class, the choice to stay home is limited.....

    The question of access to earnings is something that I feel very strongly about. My philosophy of women sitting at the head of the family dining table, especially if she is a stay-at-home mom, is a euphemism for saying she needs to have equal access to the earnings of the working spouse.... The dichotomy of working mom and stay-at-home mom, simplistic as it may seem, can still be reconciled with all these variables. With the issue of access to earnings, for example, women in both groups can have equitable access or non-existant/inadequate access to earnings, no matter who earns the money. Similarly, the variables of race, class, caste, sexual orientation etc. apply in different ways to the two groups....

    Sandberg's book was written for the corporate woman, with a few things here and there that could apply to all working women - Sandberg targets our mindset and internalized stereotypes. Much of the criticism in the media is aimed at who Sandberg allegedly is (elite, rich, not in touch with reality) and not so much what she is saying......The article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that went viral last year, seems to have somehow become the opposing camp to Sandberg. It is extremely well written, and deals with many of the external barriers that women encounter while balancing home and career.... If you have not read it, you must (even though it pertains to the American scenario):

    As always, thanks for your comments - they always help me get greater clarity in my own thoughts...
    Looking forward to talking about all of this in person!


  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Quite thought provoking article indeed.

    my blog:

    March 19, 2013 at 10:23 AM

  5. Dear Nandini, the effort and intent of the post is hard to miss and harder to go unappreciated. Very thoughtful and insightful. My two cents- why is ambition such a critical thing. I would love to live a life in which not to want be anything beyond what I am.

    1. Dear Saket,
      Thanks for your comment. You bring up a very good point. The focus on ambition, in this particular blogpost, is because it is a response to a book that is wholly focused on ambition. When speaking more generally, I too am of the opinion that there is nothing intrinsically grand about being ambitious or achieving things that the world generally links with having ambition, i.e. money, status etc. That is why I feel that "ambition-less" women like house-wives ought to have the same status as working women, at least from the narrow feminist viewpoint.
      But the question of why the notion of ambition is held as a worthy thing to have is complicated. An elaboration on it in my next blogpost, perhaps.

  6. Hi Nandini,
    Very well written.working moms and the home makers (house wives) both need due reognition.
    Padma aunty