Sheryl Sandberg is the ultimate good girl careful not to upset those in power

The good girl myth states that women only have to behave themselves and play by the rules to win in the workplace

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, is perpetuating the “good girl” myth.

The good girl myth states that women only have to behave themselves and play by the rules, and then they’ll get everything they want. In 2010, Sandberg declared in a 15-minute TED talk that women won’t even have a chance at making it to the top until they stop taking themselves preemptively out of the game. We sabotage ourselves. We sit off to the side of the conference table. We don’t own our ambition because we fear we won’t be liked for it – and research says we won’t be. That’s the price we need to pay to ensure gender equity for future generations.

Sandberg tapped a nerve. Trust me: the woman has yet to be born who is not schooled to doubt herself, to second guess every statement, and to feel guilty if she’s not making everyone else happy. No one, to paraphrase P.T. Barnum, will ever go broke underestimating the ability of the American public to take personal responsibility for greater societal woes. As a result, Sandberg’s TED talk has garnered more than 2m views on the organization’s website and another several hundred thousand on YouTube. Her just released book based on the speech, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, was a bestseller from the day it was released.

Sandberg is nothing if not the ultimate good girl and, to her credit, she cops to it in her new book. There’s another career self-help book called “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” and Sandberg seems determined to argue the opposite case. It’s like upside-down Mae West: bad girls lose promotions, she seems to say, while good girls go everywhere.

This strategy for success is a reflection of her own personality. Positive spin, a necessary skill for reframing many of the sometimes dismal interactions around building success, is the highest good. There are no failures in Sandberg’s universe. Mothers who leave the workforce are “tireless” volunteers. There are no unhappy people in her book, no one who “leaned in” only to get pushed back in return. If you lean in and don’t get what you want, you just simply did it wrong – too aggressively, usually, and not the way a good girl should.

“I know a male CEO who is enormously dedicated to hiring and promoting women,” Sandberg tells us toward the end of her book. “When a female employee kicked off a negotiation by insisting she should have a higher title and was undervalued because she was a woman, it immediately put him on the defense … The CEO had no choice but to put their friendly talks on hold and call in HR. It might have served her better to explain how she was contributing to the company and ask for the promotion first.”

The takeaway: don’t get angry, don’t insist on your legal rights, make your case in a friendly, non-threatening way. Reading Lean In, you get the idea that Sandberg believes the American business world circa 2013 is filled with unenlightened but well-meaning male CEOs. They simply need to be told, in very small words, that pregnant women need special parking spots, and that we deserve the pay of the man at the next desk. They are not sexist and discriminating, at least not in the sense we would have used the word in the early 1970s, when Sandberg was born. Instead, they’re merely oblivious. Only a few good, careful lessons from female employees stand between them and enlightenment. (Just prepare to have HR called if he takes the lesson the wrong way.)

This is, to put it mildly, a stretch. Many of the problems are structural.

Women have been leaning in now for the better part of two generations. Our pay remains stagnant at 77 cents to every dollar a man earns. We hold less than twenty percent of the seats in Congress – and that’s good compared to the corporate sector, where less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. The percentage of women in the highest-ranking positions fell on Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis.

On an individual level, fewer than 20% of women know how much money they’ll need to retire on. Women give up $430,000 in lost earnings over a lifetime, which is enough to feed a family of four for 37 years. It’s also enough to deny women the primary virtue of money: freedom and flexibility. Women are limited in their choice of housing, transportation and education because they have less income.

So the problem is pretty serious, and society-wide, and it would take some rigorous questioning.

But Sandberg asks no questions and takes no positions that would make those in power unhappy. She believes what she is told. There is no indication Sandberg tracked down the female executive whose insistence on her legal rights made her life unnecessarily difficult. How do we know this is what really happened? Perhaps others in the company had asked for promotions in the nice, non-feminist way Sandberg suggests and been shoved straight out of the corner office for their troubles.

A look at the corporations on the Lean In Foundation’s advisory board also raises some troubling questions. Wal-Mart, for example, is the target of an on-going sex discrimination case, with close to two thousand female employees claiming the company shortchanged them when it came to paychecks and promotions. Citigroup was the subject of a similar lawsuit filed in 2010.

She’s also silent on the case of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, to whom she all but shouts praise on in her book.

Shortly before Lean In’s publication, Mayer cut off her employees’ ability to telecommute, which is sure to hurt mothers – even as she made sure to ensure her own ability to ‘lean in’ by building a private nursery for her own newborn son next to her office. Yahoo does not provide daycare for its employees, unlike Google.

If Sandberg has a word to say about all this, I missed it.

Yet Sandberg appears convinced that if women can take an honest accounting of our attitudes and self-defeating behaviors, we can overcome these sorts of societal obstacles one by one. The more of us who lean in, the more of us will break through and make life easier for those coming behind us. This mindset, though she does not put it this way, is the backbone of the self-help movement. Give women the right skills, and soon we’ll all be on our way to the feminist promised land.

It is not, though, about skills. It is not about perseverance, as almost every woman who leaves the workforce voluntarily does so because she got sick of realizing that hard work and perseverance wasn’t getting her anywhere. There is very little corporate acceptance of the need for family time and family life: you either work full-time, letting things at home become a wreck, or you work part-time or stay home, giving up your income. These are unattractive choices and asking nicely for better treatment isn’t changing what’s on the negotiating table. That’s why, instead of getting closer to the promised land, we still find ourselves wandering in the wilderness. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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