Before Sheryl Sandberg became famous for her “Lean In” franchise of female-empowerment messaging, she was best known, in Silicon Valley, as a sales genius. For seven years in the mid-aughts, Sandberg ran Google’s online sales operation, which involved transforming the company from a beloved search engine with hardly any revenue into a global, multibillion-dollar ad-sales machine. When Facebook hired her, in 2008, to become the second-in-command to the C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, part of her mandate was to do something similar there; she accomplished this within a couple of years. So it was not a stretch when Sandberg announced, on Wednesday evening, an expansion of the “Lean In” campaign—#leanintogether, aimed at getting more men involved in advancing women’s rights—that sounded a lot like a sales pitch.
Lean In, the foundation that Sandberg helped to create, has dedicated a section of its Web site to #leanintogether, offering tips that men can use at home (split the chores; don’t tell your son to “man up”) and at work (give women credit; don’t assume mothers won’t want to travel). The Web page, and Lean In’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, also include messages of support from a motley group of powerful men, including Warren Buffett, LeBron James, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Hugh Jackman; Jackman got more than fifty-seven thousand “likes” for posting a photo, on Instagram, of himself grinning while taking out the trash. Emily Greenhouse, of Bloomberg, noted that #leanintogether “is being rolled out as a technology product,” complete with a smartphone-friendly interface.
The campaign was launched with an Op-ed, co-written by Sandberg and Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, with whom she has been publishing a series of pieces in the Times. “Men may fear that as women do better, they will do worse,” Sandberg and Grant wrote. “But the surprising truth is that equality is good for men, too.” They added, “Equality is not a zero-sum game.” The pair also offered some evidence to back up their argument. Companies with more female representation do better, they wrote, which means more profits to reward and promote employees of both sexes; divorce rates are lower for men who do their share of chores at home; caring for children is linked to lower substance-abuse rates; and couples who split the chores have more sex. “Choreplay is real,” Sandberg and Grant wrote. The responses to the choreplay line ranged from delight to horror, depending, it seemed, on one’s position on Sandberg’s broader campaign.
Much has been made, in the press and on college campuses, of the internal tensions within modern feminism. Often, the focus has been on whether modern feminists are building on the accomplishments of previous generations, and, if not, whether that should reasonably be expected of them in the first place. Many feminists who came of age in the seventies were appalled, for example, by the first SlutWalks, in 2011, for which women marched in suggestive outfits to protest the notion that such clothing is responsible for sexual assault—even as thousands of young women were galvanized by the protests. Sandberg’s Lean In campaign has brought to the fore a different rift, over whether the goals of feminism are best achieved through grassroots political organizing or through sales tactics borrowed from the business world.
Sandberg and Grant seemed to be doing the latter. The pair explicitly acknowledge, at the end of their Op-ed, wanting to persuade men that feminism is good for them, too. “To make gender parity a reality, we need to change the way we advocate for it,” they wrote. “The usual focus is on fairness: To achieve justice, we need to give women equal opportunities. We need to go further and articulate why equality is not just the right thing to do for women but the desirable thing for us all.” They added, “Many men who support equality hold back because they worry it’s not their battle to fight.” Sandberg and Grant draw on past political movements—they argue, for instance, that the women’s-suffrage movement gained the most traction when its supporters made the case that allowing women to vote would be better for everyone—but they also seem to be taking lessons from the world of sales and marketing, where Sandberg has made her name.
Sandberg’s message has resonated in the business world. Joelle Emerson, a lawyer by training who spent a year representing sexual-harassment victims and others at the civil-rights organization Equal Rights Advocates, and who now consults for businesses that want to increase their share of women and minorities, told me, “I’m kind of a realist on this stuff,” adding, “I think we need to communicate with people where they are now to get them on board. What is the best thing we can do to get men involved?” That meant, for her, making the case that men can benefit from feminism.
Emerson also saw the effort to involve men as an improvement on Sandberg’s earlier approach, which was to focus on what women could themselves do to get ahead—a tactic that seemed, to her critics, to disregard systemic barriers, like the societal expectation that women bear most child-care responsibilities, that prevent women from advancing. If Sandberg wants to persuade the male C.E.O.s of big companies to address those barriers, the thinking goes, what better method could there be than to convince people like Warren Buffett to buy in? Indeed, the #leanintogether campaign suggests concrete policies that managers can use to address some of the barriers. These include gender-blind hiring practices, in which the gender of job applicants isn’t visible to early reviewers; adopting “family-friendly policies”; and establishing mentorship programs for women.
Sarah Leonard, a journalist and one of Sandberg’s critics, told me that she was skeptical of whether the #leanintogether message can help to address structural barriers. Leonard argued that making the corporate world more hospitable to women by appealing to male bosses and colleagues to change their policies and behavior won’t necessarily help women in lower-wage jobs. She pointed out that when Sandberg visited Harvard to deliver a speech last year, a group of female housekeepers who worked at a hotel on the university’s land appealed to her to meet with them and aid in their efforts to unionize; Sandberg sent word that she wouldn’t have time. “The fact that she has more effectively rallied corporate leaders of both genders around the campaign than she has rallied women of different socioeconomic classes is very telling about who the campaign is for,” Leonard said. (A Lean In spokeswoman acknowledged the Harvard incident but noted that Lean In’s message and its programs are aimed at socioeconomically disadvantaged women, too.)
Moreover, the #leanintogether approach might have less impact than legislation. On Friday, Germany passed a law requiring companies to apportion thirty per cent of supervisory seats on their boards to women, prompting the Times reporters Alison Smale and Claire Cain Miller to write, “In passing the law, Germany joined a trend in Europe to accomplish what has not happened organically, or through general pressure.”
The Lean In organization tends to keep its message apolitical; #leanintogether doesn’t take a position on public-policy issues that affect women, such as universal child care or the minimum wage, though the Lean In spokeswoman noted that Sandberg “does weigh in personally on some political issues,” and that she recently gave a speech in which she “addressed the need for paid maternity and paternity leave.” Leonard told me, “I would say that if she talks to powerful male C.E.O.s and, as a result, they enforce pay equality in their companies and increase parental leave—and, if we’re going to be really hopeful, increase the salaries of the women who are cleaning the offices, as well as the women who are sitting in corporate positions within the company—that’s all to the good. However, it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved one company at a time.”
When I ran Leonard’s points by Rachel Thomas, the president of the Lean In organization, she essentially agreed with many of them. “We need to both change policy and change minds to reach equality,” she said. “As an organization, LeanIn.Org is focused on driving individual change.” She also said, “Too often, people pit one approach against another. We need every tactic to reach equality, and the more organizations that join the broader cause, the more successful we’ll all be.”