Sheryl Sandberg on Why It's OK to Cry at Work


Before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, came out earlier this week, her “sort of feminist manifesto” had already kicked up a storm of backlash and backlash to the backlash and backlash to the backlash backlash—you know, that old trap we typically fall into within feminist circles when discourse gets watered down to dysentery. In the meantime, Sandberg—and her message about gender biases and the dearth of women in major leadership roles—landed on the cover of Time, was featured in a huge segment on 60 Minutes, and became the topic of discussion on all the major morning talk and entertainment news shows. (She’s been covered all week on Access Hollywood, of all places.)

Suddenly feminism is back in the mainstream in a big way. And this time it’s not just a conversation about how it “died,” but rather, a conversation about what we can do to propel ideas forward. This is a really exciting moment because for the first time in a long time it feels like the women’s movement is actually moving. Jezebel spoke with Sandberg about her book, the foundation she’s created to help professional women “lean in” to instead of “opt out” of our careers, the gender biases that we, as women, internalize, creating barriers to our own advancement, and why—contrary to the advice of Kelly Cutrone—if you have to cry, you don’t have to go outside.

Lean In is equal parts commonsense and revolutionary, combining practical advice (how to communicate effectively, how to self-negotiate, how to self-advocate, how to split duties in the home, etc.) with big-picture goals. Although heavily researched and presenting some hard data (e.g. women earn 57 percent of the undergraduate degrees in America, but only hold 14 percent of executive officer positions at corporations and 18 percent of the seats in congress) it’s pretty engaging and, thankfully, not dry. It should be required reading for all women (and men, frankly).

Of course, that’s not to say that Sandberg—who was at Google before becoming chief operating officer of Facebook in 2006—speaks for all women. But that’s what some of her critics have suggested, accusing her of being an elitist rich lady who couldn’t possibly relate to or understand the plight of the real working moms of America who’s co-opting feminism in order to further her own brand. (Yeah, fuck those Google and Facebook stock options. The real coin is in feminist publishing!) Maureen Dowd even suggested that Sandberg’s designer footwear was indicative of her inauthenticity, calling her the “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.” First of all, as if Dowd’s own closet is filled with Payless BOGO deals. Secondly, if that statement is indicative of anything, it’s that Dowd didn’t read Lean In. If she did, she would’ve known, through an anecdote Sandberg shared about “authentic communication,” that she has a personal distaste for PowerPoint presentations.

In fact, a lot of the critics didn’t read Lean In prior to writing about it. If they had, they would’ve seen that Sandberg anticipated exactly what their criticisms would be, addressed them, and shot them down. In the intro to the book, she readily acknowledges her own privilege. Still, people act as though her personal wealth and Harvard education make her career advice less credible. If someone said the same thing about men like Donald Trump or Warren Buffett—that they’re too rich to write books about how to climb the corporate ladder to success—people would laugh at the ludicrousness of such a suggestion.

That Sandberg knew exactly what her critiques would be is demonstrative of just how much she understands the gender biases she’s discussing. And her critics also helped her prove her point: people judge women based on who they are more than what they’ve done.

In her book, she addresses that women need to be able to withstand criticism (because it will happen a lot). So how is she withstanding this criticism about her book? Basically, she has a haters-to-the-left attitude, and chooses to focus on the issues:

“What I’m really worried about is the stagnation of women in leadership. I’m worried that when I say things like, ‘The blunt truth is men run the world,’ people gasp as if that’s news. Or, ‘Women haven’t made any progress at the top of corporate America in 10 years—no progress!’ people are surprised. What I want is to do my part to help jolt us out of stagnation and I think heated debate is what that takes.

Part of what holds us back, Sandberg says, is the importance people place on women being nice. We’re guilty of it, ourselves. We want to be liked. We have to stop that, she says, and criticism helps us do that:

“Like all women, I’ve been through the self-doubt and I’ve been through wanting to be liked by everyone and one of the most important things that happened to me is that, you know, I work for Mark Zuckerberg, and in the first six months he sat me down and gave me a performance review, which was great and he looked at me and he put his paper down and he said, ‘You know, you want to be liked by everyone. You want everyone to like everything you say and do and that is going to hold you back and that is not possible.’ You know, if I hadn’t met Mark and I hadn’t got that encouragement from him, I’m not sure that I would’ve ever had that courage inside myself to ever do that. We cannot please everyone all the time—we can’t even please ourselves all the time. So part of this process for me is learning to let go and learning to do the very best I can every day and forgive myself and forgive others.”

I began to tell Sandberg that I can relate, on a way smaller scale, as a blogger because everything I write has a comments section beneath it, but she cut me off:

“I just have to argue with you. It’s not a way smaller scale. Don’t say that! Look, I don’t do public stuff every day. You’re doing something that influences the dialogue every day. You write for one of the most important places where people actually have serious conversations about women. So no! It’s not a smaller scale! It’s the same scale!”

In that moment, I had been acting out the “impostor syndrome” that Sandberg writes about, in which “many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments…Women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it. We consistently underestimate ourselves.” She was even guilty of doing it to herself in the middle of her 60 Minutes interview, downplaying her reasons for success.

The impostor syndrome is kind of like ability- or success-dysmorphia. It’s reminiscent of body dysmorphia. So are we just fucked in the head, as women?

“No. I want to be clear. This is not about women being wrong, or blaming women, or women having perception problems. The point of Lean In is that we don’t have perception problems. This is a problem. You know, a man can negotiate and say, “I’ve done this for the company, I deserve x.” And everyone feels great about it. A woman does that exact same thing, and there is a penalty she pays. Women do not negotiate for themselves as often as men or as effectively as men. That is not because women are not smart. It is because women intuitively or implicitly understand the penalty they pay for self-negotiation. That is what we need to fix.”

What was most striking to me in the book was Sandberg’s chapter on being emotional at the office, sharing stories of when she cried in front of her coworkers. And she believes it’s OK because “sharing emotions builds deeper relationships” and places an importance on striving for “authenticity over perfection,” adding that “maybe the compassion and sensitivity that have historically held some women back will make them more natural leaders in the future.” As someone who’s a cryer—it’s an uncontrollable physical response to emotions like anger and frustration—I found this really powerful and in contrast to everything I’d ever thought about tears at work. For example, when it’s happened to someone as powerful as Hillary Clinton, it seemed to undermine her. She was accused of either being weak or just playing her girlie emotional card to get out of a bad situation. Sandberg sees it differently:

“Look, I’m not suggesting that the way to get to the corner office is to cry as much as possible. Nobody is going to publish the next Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and say that crying is one of them. But I am saying that it happens. It has happened to me. It has happened to me more than once. It will happen to me again. It happens to other women. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let’s accept ourselves. OK, I cried, life went on. And I think that’s part of the message of Lean In, like we are human beings, we are emotional beings and we can be our whole selves at work.”

But doesn’t crying fly in the face of combatting the innate gender biases against women? If, as Sandberg says, self-negotiating for women—maintaining that likeability while also being ambitious—is like “walking across a landmine backward in high heels,” isn’t crying like stepping right in a steaming pile of shit?

“I think the imagery of walking a minefield backwards in high heels is less about being able to do it and more about making the point that you couldn’t. Now one can. I think the success and likeability women face is a huge part why women aren’t in more leadership roles. I see it every day. I hear it all the time. It’s interesting. I gave a speech in New York to a room full of CEOs on this topic last week. On my way out the door one of the CEOs said to me, ‘Thank you. We have an open job, a senior job in my company. These two candidates are internal. The woman has better results but the man was better liked. And I think we were about to pick the man, but I’m picking the woman.’ So making sure that people understand the success and likability penalty women pay, I think is hugely important because you can’t walk in a minefield backward in high heels. Right? And the reason I like the minefield analogy is because minefields are all about not knowing when you’re going to make a misstep and something blows up on you. And that’s what it is for women because you pay this penalty for success. As men get more successful there are no minefields. As women get more successful there are these minefields and we need to get rid of those minefields and we can get rid of them by talking about them. That’s what’s so important.

Part of Sandberg’s plan to clear out the minefields is the launch of, her foundation that she says “is not just about my voice, but about other voices,” including educational modules, kits for women to start their own “Lean In Circles,” which is kind of a hybrid of a book club/workshop/peer suport group, a monthly meetup that includes instruction for career development, research, and encouragement for them to share their stories.

Through her site, feminism is being presented to us beautifully, succinctly, scholarly, and organized with high production value. Where Riot Grrrl-ism failed as a sustainable model because of its lo-fi, pre-internet limit on sharing the message, succeeds in HD accessibility, that presents the argument for more women in leadership positions as beneficial for everyone, not just women.

Overall, though, the message of both the book and the foundation is not about whether or not working women can have it all (Sandberg believes that “the very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and commons sense” because there’s always a trade off). Instead, it’s about how we can, and should, have the equality we’re entitled to—and that we deserve that much.

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