Sheryl Sandberg says “Lean In,” so why are so many leaning out?

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, wrote a book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A surprising number of people are up in arms, to the point that the book and Sheryl herself are the center of quite a bit of controversey. After doing a bit of research, I’m still not entirely certain as to why.

Except maybe because she’s a woman. Who is empowering other women to challenge the expectations of the workplace in order to succeed. Or because she’s successful. And people are afraid of a powerful woman. And fear turns to anger very quickly, especially in the media.

In her book, Sandberg cites an experiment led by Columbia Business School and New York University professors that measures likeability versus success in both men and women. It found that when men became more successful, they were better liked, but when women became successful, they were less liked. This shows stigma on both sides of the gender spectrum; men face more of an obstacle when taking on roles like the stay-at-home dad, or less financially inclined partner, while women face more difficulty in obtaining positions of power in the workplace.

Sandberg also discusses the term “bossy,” a negatively connotated word applied almost exclusively to younger girls. In my mind this corolates with the term “bitchy” used to describe a woman (especially a successful one) who goes out and gets what she wants in her professional life-the same characteristics that will get a man described as a “self-starter” or “passionate” about his career.

Another criticism I’ve heard about Sandberg and her book is that as a supremely successful woman in Palo Alto, with a Harvard education and a job at Google under her belt, she has no right to be telling women how to run their professional lives, because she is so far removed from the average woman.

But that’s exactly why this book is so important. As a young woman entering the workforce, I want to hear about how the few women in power got to where they are. I know how to get and maintain an entry level job, information regarding that does not interest me in the slightest. But even though I don’t have a Harvard education or the kind of connections that Sandberg had while entering the workforce, her book reminds me that I can demand more of myself, and that I can persevere through being called bossy or a bitch, and going after what I want amidst a sea of men who are (either advertently or inadvertently) holding me back from higher paid, higher power positions.

Sheryl Sandberg is not advocating that all women should be CEOs; she herself is a mother of two and recognizes that many women want to stay at home to raise their kids. Nor does she claim that she succeeded all on her own, or that she somehow revolutionized the process. Instead she uses her good fortune to get women, at the very least, thinking and talking about their place in America’s workforce.

Which we should. Because without pushing our boundaries and expanding our expectations, we can’t expect to make any progress.

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