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The Corporate Mystique

Sheryl Sandberg and the folly of Davos-style feminism

Illustration by Jim Stoten

About two-thirds of the way through Makers, the PBS documentary charting the rise and fall of modern feminism, we learn the exact moment the American women’s movement died. OK, maybe “died” is too strong a word. Let’s say it had a really big stroke. On June 30, 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment passed its deadline for ratification and expired. And with that—narrator Meryl Streep tells us—the march-in-the-streets energy that had pulled women by the tens of thousands out of their kitchens and into the world just sort of dribbled away. Over the decades that followed, the work of reforming a sexist society would fall to individual “groundbreakers.” These were women such as Meg Whitman, who headed off to her job at Procter & Gamble in the suit-and-bow-tie uniform of 1980s female executives, and Brenda Berkman, whose lawsuit toppled the gender barrier at New York City’s fire department.

Women’s opportunities have multiplied exponentially since 1982. Women now outnumber men at universities and in the middle management of many companies. But the conversation about feminism seems stuck more or less where it was 30 years ago. We’re still talking about mentors, glass ceilings, and the impossibility or desirability of having it all. What we are not talking about in nearly enough detail, or agitating for with enough passion, are the government policies, such as mandatory paid maternity leave, that would truly equalize opportunity. We are still thinking individually, not collectively.

The new face of boardroom feminism, of course, is Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Now, it’s nearly impossible to dislike Sandberg, or to be unimpressed by her wry candor and the indisputable truth of her message. Women do hold themselves back in the workplace, give away too much when they negotiate, and overcorrect for nasty stereotypes about pushiness. Sandberg’s book, Lean In, is very personable. It’s a disarmingly self-deprecating career-management advice manual that doubles as a feminist manifesto. And you have to admire her for using her considerable clout to help other women.

There is a lot of name-dropping in Lean In, and the names are largely men’s: Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Summers, Eric Schmidt. (Sandberg works under Zuckerberg at Facebook; she worked for Schmidt at Google and for Summers at the U.S. Treasury Department.) I drop these names myself not just to show that Sandberg knows what she’s talking about when it comes to breaking into a man’s world, but also to pinpoint that world on the social map. Sandberg isn’t aiming for women to take over the corner office in which Don Draper used to drink whiskey. She wants them to commandeer the private jets of today’s hardworking and largely sober super-elite—which is still as male-dominated as the “Mad Men” ad agencies were. “As the ninety-nine percent has become steadily pinker, the one percent has remained an all-boys club,” observed Chrystia Freeland in her book Plutocrats.

Another term for Sandberg’s reference group is “Davos Man,” that by-now cartoonish figure named for the town in the Swiss Alps where CEOs and finance ministers meet every year to plot a better world. (As it happens, Sandberg was the confab’s only female co-chair in 2012.) It’s an item of faith for the Davos Man—or Woman—that global leaders are more effective agents of social change than activists and bureaucrats. Sandberg’s “lean-in” philosophy sure sounds like self-help for would-be C-level executives: Claim a place at the conference table; don’t give your job less than your all when planning to start a family; if you’re asking for a pay raise, smile and say “we,” not “I.” But I think Sandberg believes that women able to master this artful combination of submission to actual conditions and aggression (“I read the phrase ‘lean in’ as a weird version of ‘man up,’ ” the sociologist Shamus Khan told me) will maneuver themselves into a position to mitigate the family-unfriendly culture of America’s most competitive companies. And maybe they’ll even get men to share the housework. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg writes.

But how much, really, can individual women do? Sandberg cites research to back up her theory that women in management foster better work-life policies and help close the gender pay gap. I pulled up the most substantial paper in her footnote, however, and it concludes that the companies most likely to achieve a critical mass of female executives and therefore have more female-friendly workplaces are the ones that hold federal contracts—which means they’ve got to follow government affirmative action guidelines.

Marissa Mayer’s story suggests that Sandberg’s optimism is unwarranted. When Yahoo’s new female CEO told her employees last month that they’d have to stop telecommuting and show up in the office, it became clear that she did not see her job as helping men and women live in Sandberg’s “truly equal” world. Mayer’s job is to run Yahoo. She wants to energize a dysfunctional company in which, insiders say, telecommuting has become an excuse for doing too little work under too little supervision. But Yahoo employees now understand that, when unregulated market forces go head-to-head with policies that facilitate gender equality, the policies stand down. It doesn’t matter who runs the company.

I’m well aware that feminists have been discrediting other feminists by calling them elitist since the beginning of the women’s movement. The most notable victim of this unsisterly populism—as Makers reminds us—was Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique, published 50 years ago this February, addressed a privileged sector of the American population: white, middle-class housewives. When the liberal women’s movement morphed into the radical women’s lib movement, Friedan was dismissed as irrelevant for not talking enough about the plight of black women, working women, and lesbians.

The charge was true, but missed the point. The reason The Feminine Mystique caught on so fast and to such revolutionary effect was that the American housewife saw herself in it. Sandberg and most of the other women discussed in Lean In, on the other hand, are anything but average. They camp in the dormitories of Harvard, occupy offices at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, and wind up in Palo Alto and the Upper East Side. They inhabit a tiny transnational bubble floating out of reach of the middle class, which itself is slowly vanishing.

Competent female executives run better companies than incompetent male executives, but they’re no more likely to make universal day care the law of the land. If Davos Woman had dominated feminist discourse when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed nearly 130 female sweatshop laborers in 1911, would she have pushed for the legislation that came out of that tragedy—the fire codes and occupancy limits that made workplaces safer for women, and men, for generations to come?

America’s women’s movements helped deliver a fairer world for everyone—upper-middle class, middle class, and working class—not because they produced more leaders, but because those leaders, and the rank-and-file who worked with them and even went to jail with them, changed the rules of society. They helped women get the vote, abortion access, domestic-abuse statutes, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, de minimis as that is. No corporate boss, even one as gallantly outspoken as Sandberg, can match that.