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, 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 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," 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 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 New York City Mayor Michael 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 option 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 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, 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, 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."
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, three minutes each for personal updates, a 90-minute presentation, then discussion).
Hoping to reach beyond an elite audience, Sandberg and her foundation joined forces with Cosmopolitan magazine, which is publishing a supplement to its April issue devoted to Sandberg's ideas, and plan to spread her message to community colleges, according to those involved in the project.
But criticism is also starting to build: that 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.