Sheryl Sandberg Can’t Have It All

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It’s a quandary that many trailblazing women face. In August 2007, Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, told the Council on Foreign Relations that she wished she’d centered her efforts on nutrition, schools and housing when she was in office. But she hadn’t. Instead, she said, she had focused on “more militaristic notions.”Closer to home, Hillary Clinton, as a senator from New York, chose a seat on the Armed Services Committee in 2002, presumably to establish her bona fides as a future commander in chief. She also voted for the invasion of Iraq.The truth is, Sheryl Sandberg has been preoccupied with her own P.R. — and has been a master of the cold science of optics — ever since she was a teenager. One of the most revealing stories in “Lean In” is about her senior year, when she was voted Most Likely to Succeed. Believing that the title would interfere with her chances of getting a date to the biggest party of the year — “Who wants to go to the prom with the smartest girl in the class?”— she got a friend on the yearbook to remove the designation.This is a woman who thought strategically about prom.Much of the advice Sandberg gives in “Lean In” is, frankly, unapologetically strategic. And why ever not, when the obstacles to female advancement can seem as high as the moon? But controversially, much of it was also retrograde, a nod to realpolitik: Ask for a raise because women as a group tend to be underpaid, not because you personally deserve it. Note that someone more senior to you suggested that you ask for this salary negotiation in the first place. Be “relentlessly pleasant,” to borrow a phrase from Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities. Only when women are represented at the top in greater numbers, she argued, will they be allowed to lobby for themselves without self-consciousness.“Relentlessly pleasant” is exactly how Sandberg has been in her dealings with Congress. The Times investigation notes that she sends personalized thank you notes to lawmakers she meets.What makes Sandberg’s current behavior so unsavory is that she put corporate interests — and her own image — ahead of the needs of democracy. She would sooner downplay Facebook’s involvement in a national security crisis than compromise the integrity of her reputation. And in so doing, Sandberg, one of the country’s most influential and renowned feminists, may have contributed to the historic loss of the first viable female candidate for president of the United States.