The Women’s March, Sheryl Sandberg’s silence, and Leaning the F*** Away

Someone at work recently posted the article Lean Out: the deafening post-November silence of Sheryl Sandberg on our internal social network, posing the question, “Do you do what you think is right, or do you do what is right by your company?”

Here are some excerpts of the article to get you up to speed, or head straight to my response.

Sandberg must be well positioned to be a leader in this precise moment of feminist consciousness, right?

Uh, wrong.

Since November, I’ve heard one phrase uttered over and over by senior women in the Valley: “Why isn’t Sheryl saying anything about this?” To be specific, it started right around November 9, when Hillary Clinton conceded the Presidency to Donald Trump.

sherylsandbergShe defended Peter Thiel staying on Facebook’s board. She defended her boss’s dismissal of the idea that fake news impacted the election. She– not Zuckerberg– went to that meeting and sat behind the Trump water. And most surprising of all: Sheryl Sandberg had absolutely nothing public to say about last weekend’s women’s march, the largest feminist event in our lifetimes. The largest American protest. The time we actually saw footage on every major network and newspaper of what she has been saying for years women need to do: Linking arms and standing together.

and

It is impossible to imagine that Sandberg has absolutely nothing to say about the women’s march, that she simply didn’t notice it happened. It strains credulity almost as much as the idea that Facebook’s trending news algorithm didn’t notice it. It’s particularly remarkable given how much of the march was organized on Facebook.

Sandberg can not or will not even acknowledge the most feminist thing that’s happened, which was largely organized on her company’s site and aligns with her stated personal political views.

and

Speak out. Link arms. Role-model stepping outside of a woman’s comfort zone. Don’t normalize bias by staying silent and protecting your own interests. Organize. This is the advice of a woman who didn’t acknowledge that all of that just happened on a global scale last Saturday.

Now is about the time when some people reading this are screaming what’s become the two cop out words in a Trump America: Fiduciary duty!

and

She didn’t have to become a feminist champion, she chose to. She convinced women she was linking arms with them. And– I’m not saying this was her cynical intention– but she has profited from that decision. Women like Sandberg abandoning the movement now speaks to the anxiety I saw in women of color in the– ahem– Facebook group Pantsuit Nation just after the election: That white women who have a place in a Trump world would abandon the greater cause. That the “sisterhood” against Trump would abruptly turn into every white woman for herself, and a bunch of women of color being shit out of luck.

Sandberg has sadly modeled the worst fears women of color have in being part of the broader feminist movement. And in doing so, she’s given credence to a lot of unfair criticism she got after LeanIn was published: That she was arguing feminism from a position of luxury and privilege.

Here’s my response:

  1. Wow it must be hard to be that public a figure (whether or not you chose that life) and have your every move scrutinized, though to be fair, the author of the article argues fairly convincingly that Sheryl has benefited from her spokespersonship;
  2. I’m sure that if I dug that deeply into anyone’s history and current actions I’d find all sorts of hypocrisy;
  3. It makes me a little uncomfortable that this writer frames this whole Very Important conversation as a condemnation of one person, even if she argues her point well, and
  4. The question, as my colleague posed it (“Do you do what you think is right, or do you do what is right by your company?”), is super interesting for anyone to consider, at every intersection of gender, race, and identity, etc!

The answer, I believe, really depends on a concept that this article touches on: PRIVILEGE.

Depending upon how privileged you are, you are in more or less a position to choose to risk political suicide or getting fired or blacklisted (or whatever) in your place of work for doing that thing you believe “is right,” even if others in positions of power don’t agree with you.

If you hold privilege and believe that privilege comes with responsibilities (to lift others up, and call things out as you see them, speak your voice even if it’s in opposition to the company line, to use your power to improve situations for those who are less privileged — and I do believe this! I’ve written a longer piece on the topic of privilege here) then you might stick your neck out more, and face those consequences knowing that you won’t ultimately be wondering how you’re going to feed your kids as a result. But that’s a conscious choice and decision based on factors that may or may not be visible to others.

I absolutely believe we need MORE visible, vocal women (and allies!) to champion a variety of approaches to, well, being successful, because who can possibly know what “success” means to anyone except that person themselves? More of us continuing to speak up and march (or not, these are also choices – I chose to stay home and write this instead of actually marching) may help alleviate the burnout and witch-hunting that understandably rear their heads amongst the spokesperson-y torch-holders.

I’m not exactly Sheryl’s biggest fan, but throwing stones isn’t exactly a form of “linking arms” or “lifting each other up” either, eh? I’d like to believe that these potentially less-risky behaviors that are more accessible regardless of privilege, and either way, I’d rather focus my energies there.

***

P.S. I can’t help but remember this whole business, wonder if Jessica Williams’ then-sentiment is anything along the lines of what Sheryl herself has been thinking lately?

UPDATE: Apparently Sheryl regrets not having said anything about the Women’s March.

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