The chattering classes are a twitter over Sheryl Sandberg’s new book about women in the workplace, Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (that’s punny, eh, given the new definition of twitter ascribed to the most useless and annoying social media platform imaginable—my reference is mainly to the original meaning of the word, though I’m sure there have been more than a few tweets by twits twittering over Sandberg’s book). For all but a very select few women, Sandberg’s book should be ignored. The buzz over the book among the chattering classes reminds me of William F Buckley’s observation that he would rather be governed by the first five hundred or so folks listed in the Boston phone book than by the faculty at Harvard; allow me to add, or to be governed by the graduates of Harvard (as is Ms. Sandberg, twice). What words of wisdom could this child of privilege who happens to also possess a womb offer to women (or for that matter, men) struggling and striving simply to survive?
Sheryl Sandberg is not a working woman. She’s more than likely never done an honest day’s work in her life (i.e., with a little sweat on her brow, or an aching back as a consequence, except perhaps when she taught aerobics during college). She is a child of privilege, having won the aptitude and attractiveness portion of the genetic lottery, with the added advantage of being born into a family fully capable of nurturing to the fullest the gifts that nature, in its fickle whim, decided to bestow upon her.
Sandberg is the daughter of an optometrist father and Ph.D French instructor mother. She is smart, having graduated summa sum laude from Harvard University with a degree in economics. She is thin and pretty and Jewish, and don’t think for a moment that those attributes haven’t factored in her success. She is connected, having had Lawrence Summers, a professor at Harvard during her time there as an undergraduate, take her under his wing as her thesis adviser. When Summers left to serve as head of the World Bank, he recruited her to serve with him. When Summers was later appointed by Bill Clinton as Secretary of the Treasury, Sandberg followed along, serving as his Chief of Staff. When Summers returned to Harvard and drew fire over his remarks about women in science and math, Sandberg defended him in an article in the Huffington Post. Sandberg joined Google in 2001, where she was named Vice-President of Global Online Sales and Operations. She left Google in 2008 to join Facebook as Chief Operating Officer, after having met Facebook president Mark Zuckerberg at Davos.
Nobody really knows what being Vice-President of Global Online Sales and Operations means, or what COO’s of big organizations do, but it is from this rarified perspective that she deigns to teach women how to work and lead.
Now, for any woman who graduated at the top of an Ivy League school with a powerful mentor who later served as head of the World Bank and as the Secretary of the US Treasury, and whose good looks, brains and connections then yielded a position in one of the fastest growing and most profitable of all companies (Google, at the time), and who networked at Davos to land her next position up the rung at the next big internet thing (Facebook), you should read and internalize Sandberg’s book. All two or three of you. Perhaps Marissa Meyer should read the book. Everyone else should just ignore it. Sandberg is not a working woman like you. She is a person who happens to be female who was dealt an unbeatable hand in life, and who played it well. Her challenges aren’t your challenges. She is a billionaire bureaucrat who never made or created anything. If what you seek is becoming a billionaire, without a resume and connections like Sandberg’s, you’ll have to get it on your own, which means you will have to actually lean in and lead. Unlike Sandberg.
After reading a synopsis on the Wall Street Journal of all the chattering over Sandberg’s book, I decided to query a woman in business and see what she thought of the hullabaloo. So I asked my wife, who, like Sandberg graduated near the top of her class in college (but not at an Ivy League school); who, like Sandberg, got an MBA (though not at Harvard); who, like Sandberg is thin and attractive (on the later score, exceedingly more so than Sandberg); who, like Sandberg once did, works in banking (as a mid- to upper-level executive in human resources at a TBFT bank). You might be able to guess her answer to my query about Sandberg’s book: “Sheryl who?” Good for her. While my wife shares some superficial similarities to Sandberg, she didn’t go to Harvard, and she didn’t have one of the most powerful men in the US take her under his wing at the critical initial stages of her career. Besides, she’s stubborn enough that she probably wouldn’t have much cottoned to the necessary kowtowing being mentored requires. She’d rather get things on her own, or through her rather extensive network of female friends, than owe a man anything. Women instinctively understand what is often expected when men bestow favors upon them, and it is not in my wife’s nature to engage in the trade. I couldn’t have bought her, no matter how much money I might have had, because she’s not for sale. It’s something I admire in her.
I don’t mean to imply that Sandberg traded sexual favors for Summers’ tutelage and mentoring, though such is most commonly the quid pro quo between powerful men and subordinate women to whom they bestow favors. But Summers had to have had some reason for mentoring Sandberg. It might have been simply that he could see how adding a brilliant and attractive young female protégé to his coterie of close professional associates (in the ‘hood, it would be called his “posse”) would enhance his stature, and nothing more. Summers and Sandberg are trained in the art of economics, so undoubtedly they each understand the axiom that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Mentors don’t mentor for free. Summers was getting something out of the relationship.
Sandberg and the chattering classes, so busy talking just to each other, have completely missed, or intentionally ignored, developments on the ground in the workplace. There now is inequality among the genders in the work place. But it accrues to the advantage of women. Women are every bit as smart and capable as men at doing the jobs demanded of a post-industrial, information and service economy. Even in combat, industrialization has rendered male physical advantages a near nullity. Anyone can squeeze a trigger to launch a bullet, or push a button to launch a missile. With the exception of a rare few jobs (I never saw any female beer rollers during my short time in the beer distribution industry), there is mostly equality in ability among the genders to do the work of the modern era. But women still possess the advantage that made them equal overall before industrialization—they still hold the future of the species in their wombs. Men had always been at a disadvantage to women socially because they lacked the ability to nurture and create new life, a disadvantage which was counterbalanced by their economic supremacy. They couldn’t create and nurture life, but they could at least provide the resources and protection that the nurturing of life required. Now that women can provide those resources without the aid of men, men are distinctly disadvantaged overall. Developed, post-industrial economic systems are no country for old men, or young men, either. There simply isn’t any specific need for them anymore, except as sperm donors, and the particular biology of the human (and other) species means that the demand for sperm has always been copiously oversupplied.
The irrelevance of men may seem to be a good thing from the perspective of females, at least individually. It gives them power they never enjoyed when the sexes were more equally footed. But it can’t be good for the species as a whole. Among fully developed economic systems, there is hardly a single one where females are producing offspring at a rate sufficient to replace the existing population (and the same holds true, .e.g., in China, with a great many lesser developed economic systems). Post-industrial economic development may ultimately accomplish what famine, disease and catastrophe so far hasn’t—the ultimate demise of mankind. This is not just a flight of fancy. The demographic implosion in Western Europe and East Asia, and to some extent the United States, portends a dismal economic future. The liberal democratic system of capitalism that arose in these fully developed economic systems, and particularly the financial systems supporting them, profoundly depends on steadily expanding demand (else capitalists have no place in which to plow their profits). Demand is driven by the needs and desires of human beings. Without more of them, and once the needs and desires of the existing humans are satiated, demand ceases to grow and liberal democratic capitalism collapses on itself. The financial crisis of 2008/9 was just a harbinger of things to come. It won’t be rope with which capitalism hangs itself. It will be financial obligations entered on the assumption of perpetual demand growth.
But in the meantime, women all over the world can freely ignore Ms. Sandberg and her unbelievable conceit in thinking she has something meaningful to say about how women should behave in the workplace. Most working women have by now realized that economic equality ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Working is hard and aggravating and stressful. Having and raising children alone is even more so. As Ms. Sandberg fully understands, having a powerful male mentor, or a sugardaddy, perhaps isn’t such a bad thing, or at least isn’t if the traditional means of partnering with a man to meet the challenges of survival and propagation are foreclosed because society has cast its men aside as irrelevant.
In all sexually reproducing species, there is a more or less constant battle between the sexes for supremacy, with neither gender conclusively winning. In the developed economic systems of the human species, females have won. Males are all but unnecessary. This is uncharted sexual relationship territory, and it all happened so quickly that there is no way the genome could have mutated to accommodate things. Time will tell whether the society of man can nonetheless somehow adapt.