Maureen Dowd / Pompom girl for feminism: The Facebook COO's message fails to make real connections

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WASHINGTON -- Sheryl Sandberg is not one to settle for being the It Girl of Silicon Valley.

Nor is the chief operating officer of Facebook willing to write a book that people might merely read.

One of her friends from her Harvard days told Vogue that the brainy, beautiful, charming, stylish, happily married 43-year-old mother of two, one of the world's richest self-made women, has an "infectious insistence." (She would have to, having founded Harvard's aerobics program in the '80s, wearing blue eye shadow and leg warmers.)

Now that she has domesticated the Facebook frat house, Ms. Sandberg wants to be "the pompom girl for feminism," as she calls it. She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women's revolution -- Betty Friedan for the digital age. She wants women to stop limiting and sabotaging themselves.

The petite corporate star is larger than life, and a normal book tour for "Lean In," which she describes as "sort of a feminist manifesto" mixed with career advice, just won't do.

"I always thought I would run a social movement," she said in "Makers," an AOL/PBS documentary on feminist history.

Ms. Sandberg may have caught the fever to change the world from Mark Zuckerberg, or come by it genetically. She writes that her mother, at age 11, responded to a rabbi's sermon on tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, by "grabbing a tin can and knocking on doors to support civil rights workers in the South."

The charmed Ms. Sandberg is no Queen Bee. Unlike some other women who reach the top, she does not pull up the ladder, or jungle gym, as she prefers to think of it, behind her. Many women found it inspiring when she said in "Makers" that she left work at 5:30 to go home to her kids, even while they acknowledged that you might have to be Sheryl Sandberg to get away with that.

Ms. Sandberg, who worked at the Treasury Department for her mentor, Larry Summers, and at Google before going to Facebook, started a group called the Women of Silicon Valley to listen to celebrity speakers and swap stories.

She knows that there is slow evolution or even erosion in women's progress in some areas, and that many younger women don't want to be called feminists. Professional women often take their husbands' last names these days without a thought.

Her book is chockablock with good tips and insights, if a bit discouraging at times. She urges women in salary negotiations to smile frequently and use the word "we" instead of "I." And she encourages employers and women to talk upfront about plans for children, which employers may fear is lawsuit fodder.

She seems to think she can remedy social paradigms with a new kind of club -- a combo gabfest, Oprah session and corporate pep talk. (Where's the yoga?)

Ms. Sandberg has been recruiting corporations to join her Lean In Foundation, which will create the Lean In Community and Lean In Circles, which are, as The New York Times' Jodi Kantor wrote, like "consciousness-raising groups of yore." The circles will entail eight to 12 peers who will meet monthly and use "education modules" to learn the skills to pursue equality. (Like how Rosa Parks used bus modules.) The debut assignment is a video on how to command more authority by altering how you speak and sit.

Women are encouraged to send in stories about leaning in, but no sad sacks allowed: "Share a positive ending about what you learned from the experience," says the instructional material for Lean In Circles. And no truants: "Don't invite flakes."

That leaves me leaning out.

Ms. Sandberg has already gotten some flak from women who think that her attitude is too elitist and that she is too prone to blame women for failing to get ahead. (Not everyone has Larry Page and Sergey Brin volunteering to baby-sit, and Mr. Zuckerberg offering a shoulder to cry on.) Noting that her Facebook page for "Lean In" looks more like an ego wall with "deep thoughts," critics argue that her unique perch as a mogul with the world's best husband to boot makes her tone-deaf to the problems average women face as they struggle to make ends meet in a rough economy, while taking care of kids, aging parents and housework.

Ms. Sandberg describes taking her kids to a business conference last year and realizing en route that her daughter had head lice. But the good news was that she was on the private eBay jet.

Ms. Sandberg may mean well, and she may be setting up a run for national office. But she doesn't understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign. Just because digital technology makes connecting possible doesn't mean you're actually reaching people.

People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Ms. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.

She says she's using marketing for the purpose of social idealism. But she's actually using social idealism for the purpose of marketing.

opinion_commentary

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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