Sheryl Sandberg Isn’t Talking to You Anymore: Growing Elitism in the Ranks of Workplace Feminism

by / 0 Comments / 484 View / March 25, 2015

There is an art house and café in Brooklyn, NY that was founded three years ago by two young college graduates – let’s call them Samantha and Katherine. I visited this cafe, as I often do on wintry evenings, for a cup of hot chocolate and chatted with the two owners about their day. Samantha’s phone rang; she picked it up and said: “Hello? Hey, I can’t make it tonight, I’m working. Maybe this weekend? Thanks, honey.” Katherine cracked a joke about her business partner’s love life being nonexistent, and I laughed along as well, but Samantha grimaced, saying, “Sometimes I wonder if all this” – she gestured around her cafe – “is worth it.” I reminded her that the cafe attracts families from all over Brooklyn, and that they had just set up their own cookie stand at a major department store. “Sheryl Sandberg would be proud,” Katherine quipped.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, recently launched a campaign called #leanintogether, calling on the likes of Warren Buffett, LeBron James and Hugh Jackman to help advance the cause of women’s equality both at home and in the workplace. But the issues that pestered Sandberg’s clean-cut corporate pitch in 2013, with the publication of Lean In, the book on a woman’s work-life balance that prompted Sandberg’s now-industrialized brand of workplace feminism, still remain. Her battle tactics for the workplace are meant for a minuscule percentage of wealthy, well-connected working women, and she doesn’t seem to have time for the middle-class working women who are misled by her all-embracing philosophies of workplace equality. When Sandberg was invited to give a lecture at Harvard University last year, she was contacted by a group of female hotel housekeepers in the area who hoped that she would back their efforts to form a union; Sandberg replied saying that she “wouldn’t have the time.” Sheryl Sandberg, in her various commencement speeches, TED talks, book tours and lectures, is speaking to those women who currently, or will go on to, occupy top-tier jobs in major businesses; her target audience is a verysmall subset of working women. One of these women, Anne-Marie Slaughter, belongs to this very subset, and while she tries to contribute to the debate of women ‘”having it all,” her words are again meant to fall on few ears.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, writer of Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, did not realize until she made her way to the top of the ladder as the first female Director of Public Policy at the State Department, that she was “compromising” her work and home life. When she gave up running the household in absentia and essentially quit her dream job, Slaughter says that many working mothers came up to her after her resignation with such comments as “I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great.” Throughout her piece, Ms. Slaughter has positioned herself against an avowed spokesperson for the “do it all, have it all” philosophy: Sheryl Sandberg. Slaughter insists that Sandberg’s arguments for “having it all,” as vague as that term is, is mythical. However, Slaughter’s language bespeaks an obstinate disregard for systemic barriers placed against lower-middle-class working women. The primary problem with both Slaughter and Sandberg is their targeting of an ultra specific group of women at the figurative top. The fact that their views have become fodder for every upper-middle-class woman who suffers lost hours with their significant other suggests a critical misunderstanding of their positions.

While it is understandable, for instance, that café owner and Colombia coffee enthusiast Samantha may miss time spent with her boyfriend, why did she question her very own creation, her cafe, when the two seemed to conflict? Sandberg doesn’t help with this problem of class specificity either. During a commencement speech at Barnard College, she addressed the women with her same all-embracing philosophy of equality, while acknowledging that they are “privileged”: they are people who can afford to think big. The rags-to-riches story that her language suggests speaks to the long-living American myth of making it big by pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and getting to the Employment Office. It effectively reels the middle class in.

Slaughter, meanwhile, admits in her piece that her target audience is a specialized one as well – she says, “I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.” She then concedes that “very few women reach leadership positions.” Regardless, it is important to note that it seems more than a little encouraging, and quite progressive, that the successful (and well-off) woman of the twenty-first century is changing her question. She is now asking, “Can I have it all?” versus, “What can I have?”

It becomes more and more apparent that the issue of the work-life balance is fast becoming exclusive to those who fall into a certain income bracket, even when workplace disenfranchisement is rampant for women across the various classes of American society. It is a highly politicized public policy issue, an aspect of workplace feminism that Sandberg, who “does not weigh in personally on political issues,” does not care to get behind. The work-life balance is what you make it, and while you can take inspiration from the likes of Slaughter or Sandberg, they must inform and influencerather than decidehow you are supposed to lead your work life. In all likelihood, you are or will be a Samantha, grinding away long hours at a job you love. There are elements in their stories that might resonate as one, but the life of the café-owning, cookie-making twenty-something cannot, and should not, compare to a social-media-running, comfortably affluent COO or to an equally prosperous international lawyer and mother of two.


Grose, Jessica. “Male Executives Don’t Feel Guilt, See Work-Life Balance as a Women’s Problem.” Slate Magazine. Slate, 5 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Kantor, Jodi. “Elite Women Put a New Spin on an Old Debate.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 June 2012. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Kay, Katty, and Claire Shipman. “The Confidence Gap.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, May 2014. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Mazzeo, Danielle, and Joyce Pisarello. “Beginning a Business: Two Moon Art House and Cafe.” Personal interview. 12 May 2014.

Sandberg, Sheryl. “Transcript and Video of Speech by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook.” Barnard College. Barnard College, Columbia University, 18 May 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 June 2012. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Vara, Vauhini. “Sheryl Sandberg’s Divisive Pitch to #leanintogether.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 8 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Mar. 2015

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