Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, just isn’t getting the response she had hoped about her soon-to-be launched book and social movement, Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead. Her message to women to lean in and raise the number of women sitting at the table is clouded by the real numbers about women in work:
- The largest group of people likely to live in poverty in the United States are women
- The gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in America than anywhere else in the Western world
- Women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups.
- Black and Latina women face particularly high rates of poverty. Over a quarter of black women and nearly a quarter of Latina women are poor. Black and Latina women are at least twice as likely as white women to be living in poverty.
(From the Straight Facts on Women in Poverty)
If these women leaned in any further, they’d fall over.
The problem is, Sandberg, like many of the early feminists, isn’t speaking to the concerns of the vast majority of working women. The table Sheryl wants women to sit at is the leadership table, clearly, one reserved for a very tiny subset of women. And preaching from a lofty pulpit, as a double Harvard graduate having led an extremely privileged life, hinders, more than helps get her message across.
But Sandberg has a point. And the right to say what she thinks, regardless of her pulpit. Her point, that more women leaders will make it better for all women, has merit. And why not speak to women in power? Internalized sexism is an equal opportunity syndrome, affecting all women, regardless of class.
Internalized oppression is a real psychological disease. We carry the scars of a bad childhood well into our adulthood: distorted images of ourselves, self-hatred, inability to connect emotionally with others. What about a millennium of oppression, degradation and violence? Or over three centuries of slavery? W.E.B. DuBois, one of the first to write about the psychology of political oppression. described it in the Souls of Black Folk:
[T]he facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate.
He called it ‘race suicide.’ Today we call it internalized oppression. Whatever we call it, prejudice is a psychological and not just social problem. Even Gandhi knew this. While fighting for freedom from the British, Gandhi reminded his fellow Indians that they, too, were “British.” We may rid the country of the British, he said, but we also suffer from the British within, the tyranny of racism, gender oppression, caste institutions, and religious domination in our own country. If we identify only the British as tyrants, what awaits us once we kick them out?
There is an inner front, and not just an outer front in the fight against oppression and Sandberg is speaking to this. Maybe we don’t want to listen to her message but both fronts in the battle have to be fought. The role the individual plays, consciously or unconsciously, in perpetrating their own oppression, is a tough truth that has to be discussed. Women do doubt themselves more than men. Lower social expectations onto you because of race or gender do get internalized as low self-esteem and self-doubt and have a direct impact on performance. It’s called stereotype threat- just being reminded of the stereotype of our gender or race is enough to dramatically drop performance.
And no doubt Sandberg herself is a victim of the same oppression she’s trying to address. She and other women CEOs are under enormous pressure to represent the totality of women’s experience. It’s part and parcel of the burden of the front runners, those early successes who break new ground for others. And it’s an unfair burden. When your marginalized group finally has the spotlight, you have a triple threat: you are under increased pressure to perform to prove that women, blacks, gays, etc. can perform, while having increased visibility as the “only one,” and finally, you have to succeed not just for your own benefit, but for the benefit of your entire social group. You have to represent every facet of your group.
When the movie Philadelphia came out in 1993, the first Hollywood movie about homosexuality with an A-list actor in the lead role, it was excoriated by the gay community. It didn’t depict the real life struggles of gay men facing AIDS. They were rich, could afford health care, had the support of loving families, and could afford a lengthy and expensive law suit against the law firm that fired him. It wasn’t representative. And neither is Sandberg. But when there are so few representing an entire marginalized group, it can never be enough.
Sandberg may not be the savviest when it comes to social activism. Starting a grass-roots movement is not normally done from the C-Suite. But never mind. She said she wanted to start a conversation, and if that’s her goal, then she’s succeeding.