Why Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Sets Women Up For Failure

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Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' sets women up to fail
Ignoring vulnerability—as Sheryl Sandberg insists—is not a remedy for imposter syndrome.

The most controversial and troubling aspect of Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead, is her advocacy of Lean In Circles and the way she pitches them to prospective members. Like empowerment groups, Lean In Circles are promoted as forums in which women are urged to share their personal stories—stories that emphasize positive, morale-building experiences. To join a Lean In Circle, women must commit to a disciplined curriculum of monthly meetings (missing no more than two per year) that adhere to a standardized format of 15 minute check-ins—three minutes to each participant for personal updates—a 90 minute presentation and then discussion. These groups are heralded by Sandberg as a potentially valuable therapy for imposter syndrome, the shameful feeling that women are much more likely to carry inside them (supposedly) than men; that if they try to do something a man normally does, they're likely to be exposed as frauds.

A cartoon that recently appeared in Ph.D. Comics provides a moving illustration of impostor syndrome. A woman is seated between two men in an engineering class and realizes that she's the only female in the class. "It's ok, no pressure ... " she tells herself. But then,

Aaaahh ... " she's hit with the thought that "I'm representing all of womankind!" Then she loses it while two guys on either side of her think to themselves, "Ditz or psycho." The deep, painful core of imposter syndrome for this young woman is not so much the two men judging her—although they certainly don't make it easier—but the horrible feeling that overcomes her, the feeling that she's wrong for even being there.

It's not hard to see why Sheryl Sandberg's message wouldn't be very reassuring to the young woman in that engineering class. Indeed, it would probably increase her anxiety. Given the "Gung-ho" nature of Sandberg's message, I suspect it would be a lot more palatable to the two guys seated on either side of her. Sandberg could easily fill the boots of a U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor indoctrinating female recruits at Parris Island because (make no mistake) from her singular perspective, there is virtually no room in Lean In Circles for woeful tales of missed promotions, broken marriages or emotional breakdowns that could weaken morale and undermine their mission: win at all cost because you can!

Rather than casting Sheryl Sandberg as a Marine Corps drill instructor, Maureen Dowd in The New York Times would have her play "The Pompom Girl for Feminism," promoting Lean In Circles as an animated "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada Ankle Boots reigniting the women's revolution." Dowd also credits Sandberg with possessing an "infectious insistence" that enabled her to found Harvard's aerobics program in the '80s, no doubt wearing blue eye shadow and leg warmers. Keep reading ...

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