Before Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, started to write "Lean In," her book-slash-manifesto on women in the workplace, she reread Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." Like the homemaker turned activist who helped start a revolution 50 years ago, Ms. Sandberg wanted to do far more than sell books.
Ms. Sandberg, whose ideas about working women have prompted both enthusiasm and criticism, is attempting nothing less than a Friedan-like feat: a national discussion of a gender-problem-that-has-no-name, this time in the workplace, and a movement to address it.
When her book is published on March 11, accompanied by a carefully orchestrated media campaign, she hopes to create her own version of the consciousness-raising groups of yore: "Lean In Circles," as she calls them, in which women can share experiences and follow a Sandberg-crafted curriculum for career success. (First assignment: a video on how to command more authority at work by changing how they speak and even sit.)
"I always thought I would run a social movement," Ms. Sandberg, 43, said in an interview for "Makers," a new documentary on feminist history.
And yet no one knows whether women will show up for Ms. Sandberg's revolution, a top-down affair propelled by a fortune worth hundreds of millions on paper, or whether the social media executive can form a women's network of her own. Only a single test "Lean In Circle" exists. With less than three weeks until launch — which will include a spread in Time magazine and splashy events like a book party at Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's home — organizers cannot say how many more groups may sprout up.
Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder. Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?
"I don't think anyone has ever tried to do this from anywhere even close to her perch," said Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College, who invited Ms. Sandberg to deliver a May 2011 commencement address about gender in the workplace that caught fire online. (Ms. Sandberg, who will grant her first book interview to the CBS program "60 Minutes," declined to comment for this article.)
Despite decades of efforts, and some visible exceptions, the number of top women leaders in many fields remains stubbornly low: for example, 21 of the current Fortune 500 chief executives are women. In her book, to be published by Knopf, Ms. Sandberg argues that is because women face invisible, even subconscious, barriers in the workplace, and not just from bosses. In her view, women are also sabotaging themselves. "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, and the result is that "men still run the world."
Ms. Sandberg wants to take women through a collective self-awareness exercise. In her book, she urges them to absorb the social science showing they are judged more harshly and paid less than men; resist slowing down in mere anticipation of having children; insist that their husbands split housework equally; draft short- and long-term career plans; and join a "Lean In Circle," which is half business school and half book club.
The project has the feel of a social experiment: what if women at major corporations could review research on how to overcome gender barriers, along with instruction on skills like negotiation and communication? Will working women, already stretched thin, attend nighttime video lectures on "Unconditional Responsibility" and "Using Stories Powerfully"? The instructions for the gatherings, provided to The New York Times by an outside adviser to the project, are precise, down to membership requirements (participants can miss no more than two monthly meetings per year) and the format (15-minute check-in, 3 minutes each for personal updates, a 90-minute presentation, then discussion).
Ms. Sandberg has asked a wide array of women to contribute their success stories to her new Web site. (Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The Times, wrote an essay, and the newspaper is one of many corporations to sign on to the project.) The written requests ask for positive endings, suggesting that tales closing with missed promotions or broken marriages are unwelcome. Hoping to reach beyond an elite audience, Ms. Sandberg and her foundation joined forces with Cosmopolitan magazine, which is publishing a 40-page supplement to its April issue devoted to Ms. Sandberg's ideas, and plan to spread her message to community colleges, according to those involved in the project.