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A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Jodi Kantor
Sheryl Sandberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Michael Wuertenberg | World Economic Forum

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.

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But criticism is also starting to build: that Ms. Sandberg places too much of the onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands, and too little on government and employers to provide better child care, more flexible jobs and other concrete gains.

Ms. Sandberg "does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough," wrote Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a consultant who works with companies to improve their gender balance, after watching a video of Ms. Sandberg speaking on the topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. "Every resistant man on the planet will be able to quote her" saying that women simply must become more ambitious, Ms. Cox continued. (Ms. Sandberg writes that she focuses on internal barriers because the external ones get more attention.)

Ms. Sandberg's project, according to members of her launch committee and their solicitations, asks little of the corporations signing on as "launch partners," which include American Express, Google, Sony, Johnson & Johnson and multiple media businesses. Mostly they are asked to lend their logo to Lean In and distribute its materials to employees. In exchange, they will get recognition for supporting the Lean In cause, the solicitation says.

Ms. Sandberg's chief critic has been Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former top State Department official, who published an Atlantic Magazine article titled "Why Women Can't Have It All," last year arguing that feminism — and Ms. Sandberg — were holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success.

Since then, both women quietly developed perhaps the most notable feminist row since Ms. Friedan refused to shake Gloria Steinem's hand decades ago.

According to several people who have spoken to both women, Ms. Sandberg felt blindsided by Ms. Slaughter's criticisms, and though they briefly exchanged e-mails, Ms. Sandberg stopped replying and refused joint speaking appearances. Ms. Slaughter continued her commentary: "Sheryl Sandberg is both superhuman and rich," she told Fortune magazine, implying that her advice makes little sense for anyone who is not.

"She's made a real contribution with the book, but it's only half the story," Ms. Slaughter said in an interview.

The Slaughter-Sandberg match may represent what some may see as a welcome new phase in the debate over work and motherhood. The "mommy wars," with working and stay-at-home mothers sniping at one another's choices, may have finally run their course. Instead, Ms. Sandberg, Ms. Slaughter and many others are arguing about the best strategy for fulfilling feminism's promise. "If you tell women to look inside themselves, you're letting the corporations and government off the hook," said Ms. Spar, the Barnard president, and "if you focus on the corporations and the governments, you're not being realistic."

Ms. Sandberg, who wrote a senior thesis at Harvard about domestic violence and women's income, and who has championed women at Google and Facebook, shows no sign of relenting. On top of running a major company and rearing two young children — her husband, Dave Goldberg, is chief executive of SurveyMonkey, a technology company — she has thrown herself into her new project.

Though she insists she is committed to Facebook, which might be awkward for her to leave given its rocky initial public offering, some wonder whether "Lean In" is the first step toward a new career for her, perhaps in politics.

"She is using all of her social capital on this," said Rachel Sklar, founder of a networking list for women in technology, who is on the Lean In launch committee. Asked how Ms. Sandberg would balance her demanding job with the creation of a new movement, a member of the team offered a tentative answer: she plans to use her vacation days.