Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, is about to publish a book titled Lean In, which the New York Times describes as a “book-slash-manifesto on women in the workplace” similar to The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.
A woman stooped in success, Sandberg wishes to start a social movement that will encourage women to actively address implicit gender problems in the workplace, which raises an interesting question: Are women in power expected to become feminist leaders? Is such a branding automatic or even fair?
To answer most of these questions — yes. Why? Because it is inevitable. As for the debate on fairness, that area remains gray. When a woman becomes an influential figure, she places herself in that position where she can be labeled and criticized as the masses see fit.
To summarize: French philosopher Voltaire once said, “…The possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.” It was paraphrased in the Spider-Man trilogy when Peter Parker’s uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Women continue to be a minority when it comes to gaining top positions in their fields. There are sayings out there that perpetuate this notion—from the proverbial the glass ceiling to the saying that the higher up you go, the less women you’re bound to see. So what happens in cases where women are able to break through and actually secure executive positions, whether through hard work, privilege, or a combination of both? They are immediately assigned the title of “role model” and oftentimes interpreted as feminist (or anti-feminist). They are all titles as public figures, they can choose to either embrace or reject. In Sandberg’s case, she has embraced her calling. A transplant from Google to Facebook, her statements as to why women trail behind in being top dogs have been controversial.
“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes in Lean In, continuing:
“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”
Sandberg suggests women “sabotage” themselves by internalizing low expectations placed upon them by society, thus hindering their drive and aggression to make the leaps needed to even out gender gaps. Her book aims to teach women business decisions in combination with family decisions and more, applying such choices to short-term and long-term thinking.
Another female figure to look to is that of Michelle Obama, the most powerful and public of figures in the U.S.. Once again labeled as an expectedly feminist figure, she received a further double whammy in terms of being both a woman and a woman of color. Her contribution to the cause in the eyes of feminists everywhere has been split at best.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has faced similar deliberation throughout her career. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton’s dynamics in particular are fascinating — one is married to the current president, one is married to a former present and lost the Democratic nomination to our current, male president. I recall Mrs. Clinton’s bid in particular, where both hushed and loud discussions dominated the streets and halls. They ranged from the desire to see her “win one for the women” to “her emotions would make her unfit to run the nations — what if she declares war while PMSing?”
Since the word “feminist” in itself has been (and still is) association with negative connotations, I can understand why women in power positions would be reluctant or forego actively labeling themselves as such. But feminist idols are needed to promote gender equality, for women all over who hold high aspirations in male-centric worlds. And even if not many want to take on the job, they will find themselves caught in the crossfire regardless.