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The Sheryl Sandberg I Know

CNET columnist Ben Parr talks about why the Sheryl Sandberg he knows isn't superhuman and why that's a good thing.

Sheryl Sandberg James Martin/CNET

It was a sunny and warm afternoon in July when I dropped by Facebook's old headquarters on California street in Palo Alto, just two blocks from Stanford University. As the editor-at-large of Mashable, I was a frequent visitor of Facebook HQ, mostly for product launches and the occasional interview.

This visit was different, though. I wasn't there as a journalist looking for a story; I was there seeking advice from one of the people I respect most -- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

At the time, I was in talks to start and run the digital arm of a Hollywood movie studio. I was going back and forth on whether it was the right move for my career, so I was getting advice from people I trusted and admired. I had just recommended a friend to Sandberg for her regular dinners for rising women leaders when I asked her if she would be willing to meet up for a drink. She quickly agreed.

Sandberg's message
Sandberg has been making waves in the news, thanks to the upcoming release of her book "Lean In" and a front page profile by the New York Times. The piece has spawned speculation about her future at Facebook, legitimate criticism, and a few nasty comments that will only grow as the book launch draws closer (look at the comments on the New York Magazine article to see what I mean).

Her goal with "Lean In" isn't to simply sell a lot of books (any book she wrote was going to do just that). Instead, her goal is to spark a nationwide movement to help women get ahead in the workplace through support groups, education and yes, a slew of corporate sponsors that are willing to help Sandberg get her movement off the ground. Groups of 8-12 women are encouraged to meet monthly to learn how to become commanding forces and leaders in business.

Sandberg's message to women has been remarkably consistent for years. "In the high-income part of our workforce, in the people who end up at the top -- Fortune 500 CEO jobs, or the equivalent in other industries -- the problem, I am convinced, is that women are dropping out," she said in her famous TED talk about why we have too few women leaders.

From Sandberg's talk:

Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If you test men and women, and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men get it wrong slightly high, and women get it wrong slightly low. Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce.

A study in the last two years of people entering the workforce out of college showed that 57 percent of boys entering, or men, I guess, are negotiating their first salary, and only 7 percent of women. And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors. If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say, "I'm awesome. Obviously. Why are you even asking?" If you ask women why they did a good job, what they'll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard.

Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don't think they deserve their success, or they don't even understand their own success.

While Sandberg constantly acknowledges that staying in the workforce and climbing the ladder isn't for every woman, she argues that too many women "quietly lean back" and let promotions and top jobs go to men, especially when those women are deciding whether to leave the workforce for their children. And while Sandberg acknowledges the many outside factors that promote gender inequality in the workplace, she believes too few have shined a spotlight on the role of attitudes and self-perceptions of women in the workplace.

The critics
Sandberg has a few high-profile critics though. Their central argument is simple: She's out of touch. As a billionaire super-genius at the helm of one of the world's most influential companies, she doesn't feel or understand the challenges that single moms with far less capital have to overcome every single day.

From a recent profile on Sandberg by The Guardian:

But there has been a backlash. Sandberg, as one of the key executives of one of the most successful companies in recent American history, is a billionaire. She lives in a giant house, has a successful and wealthy husband, and can easily afford whatever help she might need to ensure her two children are looked after while she sits in Facebook meetings, goes to Davos or gives a TEDx lecture.

The same cannot be said for many working women, let alone single mothers, who put in long hours, fight the same entrenched sexism yet lack the huge resources that Sandberg has managed to build up. One of her most pointed critics is Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former top State Department official who wrote a notable feature in the Atlantic magazine last year arguing that women expecting to have a family and a full career were being held to an unattainable standard.

Slaughter isn't the only one. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took to the pages of her newspaper to criticize Sandberg for trying to start "a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down."

"Sandberg may mean well, and she may be setting up a run for national office. But she doesn't understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign," Dowd argues. "Just because digital technology makes connecting possible doesn't mean you're actually reaching people."

Two sides of the same coin
I'll admit up front that I am somewhat biased in this debate. I'm honored to call Sandberg an ally and a friend, so perhaps it's no surprise that I've found the criticism of Sandberg as "elitist" to be shortsighted. Her wealth and visibility are not the result of inheritance, but of her unparalleled work ethic. This is the kind of thing we should be encouraging from young women who are about to join the business world.

Perhaps that's why I found the critique of my old Mashable colleague Chris Taylor of Dowd's column to be so poignant:

With that said, I think Sandberg and her critics are two sides of the same coin. Both viewpoints are necessary if women are to get ahead. We will not have more women CEOs and heads of states by simply teaching young women how to negotiate a salary, and we will not fix the gender gap in the boardroom by only focusing on better pay equality and child care laws. Support structures need to be built, and women have to absolutely realize that approach and attitude matter when it comes to reaching the top.

We need Slaughter, and we need Sandberg. But the solution, as it almost always ends up being, lies somewhere in the middle of these two viewpoints. We need action from the top and the bottom. And we need more men to get involved.

The Sheryl Sandberg I know
This brings me back to my meeting with Sandberg at Facebook headquarters. During our 90-minute conversation over fresh green peas, we discussed the state of Silicon Valley and she took an enormous amount of time to listen to my job situation (unfortunately outside circumstances prevented a deal).

But what I remember most was when she thanked me for my support of the cause -- I was advising Women 2.0 and had written a series of pieces on women in tech. She then commented to me that it was often more powerful if the message came from a man, and not a woman -- something I suspect Slaughter would agree is vital. Sandberg knows she can't do it alone and appreciates every person who rises up to help.

The Sandberg I know isn't an elitist, and I don't believe she's out of touch. I believe she realizes that she has a unique platform and a rare opportunity to enact social change, but that true change requires millions of people working together with millions of voices but one message. What Sandberg is trying to provide is the framework and the tools necessary for women to rise to power.

The Sandberg I know is far from perfect -- she has made mistakes, especially around Facebook privacy, that I've taken her and her team to task for over the years. That's also why I don't believe she is superhuman. There's nothing superhuman about being highly ambitious and cognizant of unrealized opportunities. There's nothing superhuman about having the determination to seize those opportunities.

We need to create more opportunities for women in business, but we also need to teach women how to seize the unrealized opportunities that are already there for the taking. I believe that is Sandberg's ultimate message to women. That is why I support Sandberg's movement, and that is why I support Sandberg.