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Facebook COO Sandberg trying to spark a social movement on the gender problem

social media Updated: Feb 22, 2013 22:44 IST

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, Sandberg wanted to do far more than sell books.

Sandberg is attempting nothing less than a Friedanian feat: a national discussion of a gender-problem-that-has-no-name, this time in the workplace, and a movement to address it.

"I always thought I would run a social movement," Sandberg, 43, said in an interview for Makers, a new documentary on feminist history.

Yet no one knows whether women will show up for 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.

Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman - with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked) and a small army of household help - urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.

"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 Sandberg to deliver a May 2011 commencement address about gender in the workplace that caught fire online. (Sandberg declined to comment for this article.)

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 Sandberg - were holding women to unattainable standards for personal and professional success. "Sheryl Sandberg is both superhuman and rich," she told Fortune magazine, implying that her advice makes little sense for anyone who is not.

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.

Asked how Sandberg would balance her demanding job with the new movement, a member of her team offered a tentative answer: she plans to use her vacation days.

(The New York Times)