Facebook COO Sandberg: A Symbol of New Wave of Feminism?

The San Francisco  Chronicle recently had an interesting piece on Facebook‘s Chief Operating Officer (COO), Sheryl Sandberg.  Named Forbes magazine 5th most powerful woman in the world… …and Fortune‘s 12th most powerful women in business, Stanford leadership/organizational behavior professor Deborah Gruenfeld says Sandberg has become “a symbol of a new wave of feminism.”  Take a closer look.

Gruenfeld explains this new wave as one in which women can finally “own their own power by just being women, where you don’t have to see that as totally incompatible. You can be feminine and be a totally powerful person.”  And part of that power comes from figuring out how to manage one’s professional and personal life.

Sandberg has been able to that–she manages her professional life with the raising of two children, and believes that “sharing leadership starts in the home,” with the splitting of domestic side of family life.  She has a 50-50 partnership with her husband, Dave Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey, and that this is key to seeing more gender equality in the workplace. Sandberg thinks it “starts with parity in the division of labor at home, “because wives who shoulder more of the burden of child care and housework than their husbands are more likely to lower their professional ambitions or drop out of the workforce altogether.”man-vacuuming

Now parity of division of labor leading to more women in powerful business positions would mark some real change.  I like how she advises women to “choose their life partners wisely, to make sure they will be supportive of their professional careers.”

However, when Sandberg talks about how a woman should manage her career, she as a symbol of change comes up short — for me anyway. She advises women to keep striving for jobs they will love “especially before they have children.”   She also says to “keep your foot the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to “take a break for a child.”

This kind of advice reflects the pronatalist assumption that women will at some point have a child. What would be a sign of real new wave symbol is if she gave the above advice, sure, but also and first the advice to think about whether you want to have children at all, and if you don’t want them, that’s a completely legitimate choice.

It will be sign of real change when women in powerful positions like Sandberg speak from the clear mentality that motherhood is optional, and does not have to be part of “having it all.” “All” can mean many things, not just balancing work inside and outside the home.

A woman quoted in the article says, “Thankfully, there are women like Sheryl who show I can do this while still having a very fulfilling personal life.” It will be a real sign of change when female leaders like Sandberg promote the reality that a “very fulfilling personal life” can include motherhood, but does not necessarily have to.

What powerful women do you know of who have clearly spoken to this reality? I don’t mean that they have said they are not  having children, but that they hold this belief?

11 thoughts on “Facebook COO Sandberg: A Symbol of New Wave of Feminism?

  1. She doesn’t sound like a very cutting-edge feminist pioneer. Her huge challenge seems to tradtional gender roles seems to be finding a husband who does half the housework. Not exactly a radfem manifesto.

    An obvious answer to the question: Oprah Winfrey.

    1. I have heard Oprah talk a bit about why she herself did herself did not have children, but have not heard her directly give that advice to other women, or speak to the childfree choice as equally legitimate choice as the choice to become a mother. More talk about powerful women’s reasons, not so much about advocating as part of every woman’s decision making process….at least what I read out there….

  2. Personally, I’d love to see more childfree women like Oprah assert publicly that motherhood is a CHOICE, which not all women have to make. I’m wondering if Oprah is afraid of criticism from pronatalists if she’s seen as “telling women not to have children” if she says that motherhood is NOT on every woman’s to-do list.

  3. Personally, I don’t consider Ms. Sandberg to be a representative of “new wave feminism” if she automatically assumes that all women will have children.

    One of the most prominent 19th-century feminists was Susan B. Anthony, who was both single and childfree, although “childless” was the term at that time. She was able to accomplish so much for the suffragist goal because she was completely free to go whenever and wherever she chose. Her married colleagues, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, didn’t have anything like that kind of mobility, especially Stanton, who had seven children.

    It seems to me that women who are REALLY a “symbol of new wave feminism” should understand that NOT all women will have children, and that being childfree is just as valid for a woman as being a mother. Sandberg doesn’t appear to have grasped that concept, not yet anyway.

    1. Well said and good reminder about Anthony…re Sandberg I agree too, at least what she says in public and what the media chooses to write about her. She may hold this view but not want to be “out there” about it. I think that might be true for lots of prominent women, and is part of what needs to change.

  4. I agree about there not being enough prominent women willing to say publicly that motherhood is a CHOICE, not some kind of biological requirement. I participate regularly on some abortion debate forums, and I have made that point repeatedly.

    However, I am not a public figure, and discussion forums are not the public media. Still, I get that point expressed wherever I can, just to “plant the seed,” as it were. Since there are many people on both sides of the debate who also participate on these forums, I think that ANY mention of motherhood being a choice rather than a requirement is better than no mention at all. 🙂

    1. I am with you. Any chance we get to make this point I think we should take, even in casual conversation with the language we use to making this expressed point when the moment seems to call for it.

  5. Laura, I totally agree (I know I’m starting to sound redundant lol). I’ve met some great CF folks on the prochoice side on these debate forums and I’d love to see more of them, because they’re great at asking anti-choice posters hard questions that somehow never get answered. Gee, I wonder why. 🙂

    On the anti-choice side, there is still this archaic idea that any woman who doesn’t want to have children is somehow “unfeminine,” “cold,” “selfish,” and all that other nonsense. Of course, these same people don’t seem to have this criticism of MEN who don’t want kids, just women. Quite the double standard, which doesn’t seem to have changed much for the last few decades.

  6. It’s difficult to overlook the link between feminism and the desire to live a childfree lifestyle. Consciously opting out of the whole romanticized notion of maternity, motherhood, and baby culture, (domestic servitude/slave hood) to live a life devoted to further self exploration and self fulfillment through a variety of means (relationships, careers, volunteerism, ect) is an incredibly empowering choice. Think of all the ways your individualism is stifled by raising a child! It’s not even worth mentioning because if you’re on this site, you’ve already realized this. As a disclaimer, this is not to say that motherhood and feminism are incompatible! But, when women like Sandberg are being dubbed “symbols for new wave feminism”, it really forces me to question our social progress. We have come a long way since the June Cleaver era, but why is it that we are still limited to the role of mother as the only way a woman can validate her existence, or “leave a legacy behind.” Its as though the thought of a woman deciding not to have a child is just unheard of, insane, dare I even say blasphemous!
    I say less is more! I hope more people will realize just how empowering and fulfilling it is to remain childfree.

    1. Laura: So well said! I especially like how you express this idea, “Consciously opting out of the whole romanticized notion of maternity, motherhood, and baby culture, (domestic servitude/slave hood) to live a life devoted to further self exploration and self fulfillment through a variety of means (relationships, careers, volunteerism, ect) is an incredibly empowering choice.”

      That is what the childfree are ultimately doing, and it is empowering indeed.

      When women like Sandberg speak with language that sends the message kids are not a “when” but a “whether” decision, that will point to bits of progress….

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