Sheryl Sandberg: Little Miss Bossy

The world is a truly fucked-up place: Russia has returned to conquering foreign territories, the polar ice caps are melting, and Tyler Perry is undoubtedly hard at work on yet another Madea movie script.

But no matter how bleak and unforgiving the world may seem, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, is always there to save us from ourselves, and she is presently invested in our collective well-being with her campaign to ban the word “bossy.”

Sheryl Sandberg believes that, as if monitoring all of our social interactions and product purchases wasn’t enough, our verbal expressions should likewise be tailored to her preferences, and the word “bossy” should be banned so as not to unduly discourage girls from seeking positions of authority both in and out of the workplace.

At first blush this may seem like a fairly reasonable sentiment, but if Sheryl wants to discourage the use of the word bossy, she might first consider whether bossy is really as destructive an influence on women as is a social networking platform that has driven more young girls to commit suicide than Jim Jones ever could because Facebook has become the go-to source for bullies committed to driving insecure teenage girls to wash down an entire bottle of Tylenol PM with a fifth of Smirnoff. The point being that Sheryl’s occupation as Facebook’s chief operating officer does not exactly entitle her to speak with any sort of authority on the subject of what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Nevermind that I can’t recall the last time that anyone even used the word “bossy” outside of a 1987 after-school special, but Sheryl maintains that young girls are unduly harassed by the epithet “bossy,” which I guess is a fine sentiment so long as one overlooks the irony of Sheryl attempting to bossily dictate acceptable vocabulary use.

Because in truth, a campaign against bossy is just such a great distractor from a campaign against concentrated wealth among the 1 % of 1% of 1% of the population to which she and her upper echelon Facebook cohorts are a part. It’s not like getting rid of bossy is going to feed the 15 million children living in poverty in the US, which is more than a fifth of children in this country. That puts America as the second worst of all developed countries in the world, just behind the idyllic utopias of Latvia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

And I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing that half of those 15 million children are girls, which begs the question: are they poor because of the word bossy? And if not, why are they poor? Because again, banning bossy isn’t likely to contribute in any meaningful way to a redistribution of wealth commensurate with greater equality of opportunity. Nor will it in any way help any number of those 7.5 million poor girls to “lean in” and gain admittance to Sheryl Sandberg’s alma mater, Harvard University. This, because admittance to Harvard and its commensurate riches, much less admission to any of the hundred-odd top universities in this country, is almost exclusively the domain of students from already wealthy families.

In an article in The Atlantic, Josh Freedman argues that “Outside of the handful of super-elite universities with fortress endowments, colleges’ finances are currently designed around enrolling a disproportionately high number of high-income students … <and> estimates suggest that 74 percent of students at the top 146 top colleges came from the richest quartile of households” (Freedman).

And Anthony Marx, former president of Amherst College, said of the situation to David Leonhardt of The New York Times that, “We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent. Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution” (Leonhardt).

Now consider that, according to a Century Foundation report, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores (qtd. in Leondhardt). As one of those average scoring middle- to high-income high school seniors (back in 1998), I have even more reason to be ashamed of my blessings—I may not have earned them as much as my less fortunate counterparts, and here I am squandering those blessings by making jokes about Sheryl Sandberg.

Of course, the important point of this statistic is that it’s not like those low-income students—in particular the girls, for the sake of this piece—didn’t enroll in college because they may have been called ‘bossy.’ They didn’t enroll because they didn’t have the money or quite the opportunity of access, bossy or not.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that Sheryl studied at Harvard under none other than Larry Summers, the man who with the help Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan helped to assault our economy like a teenage runaway at R. Kelly’s Chicagoland mansion. And it was Larry Summers who infamously suggested that innate differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math disciplines.

But Sheryl is dedicated to the idea that assertiveness is what stands between women and success. When meeting with a “Lean In” women’s group in China, she told the Associated Press afterward that “I told them this was my dream,” by which we must believe that she meant it was her dream to see so many women in China considering they are so few and far between as a result of China’s one-child-only policy. Meaning that, when China finally does take over the world a couple of years from now, it is going to be a sausage fest around here. Just one giant Republican National Convention—that is what we have to look forward to, replete with all of the closed-circuit NSA monitoring and propagandistic FoxNews journalism you’ve come to know and love.

And it begs the question: if Sheryl is so concerned about a war on women, why not wage a campaign against China’s one-child-only policy rather than one against the word bossy, which probably doesn’t affect those few million innocent girls who never got the chance to be called bossy in the first place.

Or perhaps Sheryl meant that it was her dream to meet the very women in China whose freedom of expression is continually stifled through her Silicon Valley colleagues’ continued collusion with the Chinese government (i.e. Yahoo, Google, et al.) and who will yet shell out $25 for a hardcopy of her memoir on becoming one of the richest women in the US. Either way, I cannot help but wipe away a tear at Sheryl’s unqualified magnanimity on this occasion.

And further testament to Sheryl’s inherently magnanimous disposition, she recently released an updated edition of Lean In in order to appeal more directly to college graduates who, according to Sheryl, are constantly saying to her, “I really want to ‘lean in,’ but how?” (Noveck). Never one to refrain from dispensing her wisdom when called upon to do so, Sheryl promptly drafted newer chapters to add to her book. And this with apparently no consideration as to the increase in sales and commensurate profits this would generate because while it may be important for women to “lean in,” if they want Sheryl’s advice, they’re going to have to pay premium hardcover prices for it. And her trenchant insight consists mostly of telling women that they need to be assertive if they would like to ascend the same heights of success as she herself.

According to Sheryl, that’s all it takes, if you didn’t know: a can-do spirit, a willingness to stand up for yourself, and all of those other nice platitudes you may have learned from a Taylor Swift song. Of course, a Harvard education, a compendium of Silicon Valley connections, and a broken financial system that concentrates wealth among a very limited tier of the population doesn’t hurt, either. Because that is the lesson of Sheryl Sandberg’s equality: that equal numbers of women should be represented among those disproportionately distributed class tiers.

More interestingly in this interview with the Associated Press, Sheryl also said, referring to women, “You know, if we get to equality, it’s going to be this generation that does it” (Noveck).

But equality is all very much relative for Sheryl, who as the chief operating officer of Facebook enjoys an estimated $1.7 billion net worth. And while it’s obviously worthwhile to note that inequalities based upon gender are unjust—they are—it is also not obviously worthwhile to make gender disparities the centerpiece of a campaign for equality. This, because while gender inequalities, where they may exist in the US, do not constitute the basis upon which inequality is produced. Rather, inequality is a product of a systemic dysfunction that, as popularized by the now relatively defunct Occupy Wall Street movement, favors an increasingly smaller percentage of the population at the expense of an ever-increasing majority—the 99% to the 1%. And much like a treatment program that addresses only the symptoms and not the underlying causes of a dysfunction, Sheryl’s “lean in” efforts seek only to equalize the distribution of women among, say, those top 1% of earners who account for 40% of the nation’s total income. Because for Sheryl, so long as there are more women among those top tiers, then equality has been attained. Women need to “lean in” in order to become as equally disproportionately rewarded as their male counterparts so that we can have a more just society.

Unfortunately, that does not result in a more just society but rather a society whose inequality is more proportionally represented by various body types among those disproportionally distributed classes. It’s a society, in other words, that is just as unequal but whose appearance looks more justified only because of our obsession with physicality—equal representation of men and women, among other body types, may have the appearance of looking like a more just society, but the fact is that wealth inequality, which isn’t a physical feature, remains totally unchanged.

And so to return to an earlier point: if half of those 15 million children are not poor because they have been unduly labeled with the epithet “bossy,” and if we furthermore presume that they will not remain poor because the other half of those 15 million children—i.e. the boys—call them bossy, then we might ask what is really at stake for Sheryl and her ban bossy campaign?

The answer is this: an opportunity to generate publicity and sell a few more copies of her rereleased text Lean In, which now includes an additional chapter written especially for women college graduates. That’s additionally touching in light of those aforementioned college statistics, since those college graduates overwhelmingly already come from the top quintile of this country’s population. Considering the sort of family wealth that’s associated with admission to college in the first place, for those women graduates, like their male counterparts, a good portion of the game has already been won. And it’s not like those 15 million poor kids who never get into college are ever going to have much of an opportunity to raise themselves out of their present poverty much less have enough disposable income to purchase a copy of Sandberg’s text for $25 on Amazon.

If I could close with one final statistic related to upward mobility in the US, just know that the longer a child lives in poverty, the longer they’re expected to remain in poverty throughout the course of their life. According to Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, 45 percent of people who spent at least half of their childhood in poverty were poor at age 35. And consider that, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, “about 62 percent of Americans (both male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths … Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths” (DeParle, my italics).

Meaning that, lean in all the fuck you want to, it isn’t likely to move you past that increasingly impenetrable barrier to a higher station in life. And while I hate sounding like it’s all a futile effort, I’m in fact saying that those efforts to “lean in” should be directed toward leaning into and against the economic and political structure that engenders this sort of inequality. And that is not hopeless because it is a battle that can and should be won. In fact, it is the battle that Martin Luther King Jr. was waging upon his death as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. And if Martin Luther King can’t inspire you to think positively, then I, as just another asshole internet blogger, certainly cannot.

Nonetheless, I’d like to at least suggest it as a possibility.

Works Cited:

DeParle, Jason. “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs.” The New York Times 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 1 June 2013

Freedman, Josh. “Why American Colleges are Becoming a Force for Inequality.” The Atlantic 16 May 2013. Web. 1 June 2013

Leonhard, David. “Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite.” New York Times 24 May 2011. Web. 1 June 2013

Noveck, Jocelyn. “Sandberg Back with New ‘Lean In’ for Graduates.” The Associated Press 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 1 June 2013

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