Lean In, Lean Back, Sit Down, Stand Up—Or Whatever Works For You

The plight of women’s equality has certainly been in the news lately. Elevating that conversation to a national level is the recent book, Lean In by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg.

I have to admit: I have not read the book…yet. But as a working mom of Sandberg’s age (and growing up professionally in the male-dominated advertising industry complete with butt grabs and demeaning office work), I find what she touts in her interviews and speech transcripts fascinating. What I also find fascinating is the tsunami of op-eds, posts, comments, and rebuttals harshly criticizing her. As always, the national conversation around women’s career choices is met with harsh rhetoric. And do you know who the strongest critics are? Women.

Meanwhile, amid all the criticism, some key points aren’t being heard. Sandberg’s call for better public policies, her call to find the right life partner to lend support throughout one’s career choices, and her call to stop being afraid resonated with me. She talks about fear in her book and writes, “What I would do if I wasn’t afraid is, I would speak out more on behalf of women.” It takes a lot of bravery to affect social consciousness. Many women before us were brave, too: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Emmeline Pankhurst to name a few. Thankfully, Sandberg won’t be thrown in jail or stoned for her views like those before her. But harsh, critical words from the female community can be just as damaging. In many ways, Sandberg needs to be applauded for her courage. Her book has caused a national discussion on women’s roles in the workplace—loudly and virally. I cheer that conversation. I would just ask that my fellow females respond with less vilification.

What’s funny is that Sandberg is, in part, responsible for the negativity. She gives women some sharp criticism, too. In many of her interviews she states that women aren’t confident enough and “hold [themselves] back in ways, both big and small.” She suggests that women everywhere sabotage their own success and power—that women should be more ambitious.

This of course elicited a barrage of defensive volleys. For example, on the Harvard Business Review blog, Avivah Wittenberg wrote that Sandberg “does what too many successful women before her have done; [blame] other women for not trying hard enough.” And the very public criticism from Anne-Marie Slaughter, a renowned feminist, claimed that Sandberg was “holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success.” In her piece, Why I’d Rather Stand Up Straight Than Lean In, Kristen van Ogtrop says outright: “[Sandberg’s] message should inspire me, and instead it makes me want to unfriend her.” Unfriend her? It was a well-written piece but the pettiness diminishes it.

With all the negative criticism flying around, the empowering message that Sandebrg tries to convey is getting missed: Women want balance in their lives and respect for their choices to achieve that balance. We do what we can with what we are given, sacrifice when we need to, work our tails off when we must—and we do all this based on our own personal and professional growth goals.

Lean in. Lean back. Sit down. Stand up straight. Do the hokey-pokey. Whatever works for you. We’ve banded together in pursuit of equality. Why can’t we support each other’s choices and talk about our collective future with a level of respect?

Flora Caputo is a VP and the executive creative director at Jacobs Agency in Chicago, where she has worked on a number of major CPG brands, including Quaker, Kraft, Kellogg’s and Cadbury Schweppes.

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