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America should lean in to Lean In to get beyond sexism, racism

Lee A. Daniels | 6/7/2013, 11:56 a.m. | Updated on 6/9/2013, 9:35 p.m.
One would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge that Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has had a spectacular ...
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. He collaborated with Rachel Robinson on her 1998 book, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. NNPA

(NNPA) – One would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge that Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has had a spectacular business career, the kind that is often described as affirming the claim that America is a land of golden opportunity.

The Harvard-educated Sandberg is also a powerful symbol of the rise over the past four decades of women to the highest levels of the American workplace: as senior executives of Fortune 500 corporations and small businesses alike, presidents of major colleges and universities, heads of federal agencies, governors of states, mayors of cities and towns, and even contenders for the presidency of the United States.

And yet, the very achievements of women like Sandberg have simultaneously underscored the reality that women are still under-represented in society’s decision-making positions – a fact that has raised trenchant questions about why there aren’t more women filling more of those niches at the high levels of the American workplace – and the middle levels, too.

Spurring a more effective search for answers to those questions – and solutions to the problems behind them – is the purpose of Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

Its major point is that women who want careers in business, higher education, government service, the nonprofit sector, and so on need to be more assertive inside their place of work in building their careers.

Sometimes citing what she says were mistakes she made in her career, Sandberg repeatedly contends women need to become more effective in taking on responsibility for “big” projects, in touting their own achievements, becoming less risk-averse in seeking assignments, and in learning how to better negotiate for higher positions, and greater compensation and benefits.

She asserts that too many women, both those who are married with children and those who are not, have surrendered – often for understandable reasons – to the barriers set against them. Sandberg uses the metaphor of a group holding a discussion around a conference table to declare that women as a group need to not shrink back but “lean in” to the conversation and make sure that their voices and ideas are heard.

By dint of her highly visible position and her smooth rise to it, Sandberg’s book set off a controversy even before its official March publication date. Much of the pre-publication discourse focused on whether Sandberg was, in effect, downplaying or completely ignoring the impact of discrimination against women in the workplace and playing a “blame-the-victim” game against women.

Does that criticism sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like the debate over the use of and the notion behind the phrase “no excuses” that’s long been part of the discourse about the status of Black Americans?

Indeed, just last month some commentators charged that in urging graduates of historically Black Morehouse College to adopt a “no excuses” attitude about pursuing their future careers, President Obama was ignoring the continuing persistent discrimination in society.

But, just as the criticism of the president’s use of “no excuses” was incorrect, anyone who gives Lean In even a cursory reading will quickly come to the conclusion that on that charge she is decidedly not guilty.