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Monday, February 06, 2012

Is Sheryl Sandberg a Model for (Female) Prawfs?

I have a bit of a friend-crush on Sheryl Sandberg. No, I don't know her. But her sister was my classmate, and through FB, I get to keep track of some of her accomplishments. So from afar, I admire much of what she's done and come to represent. That said, as much as I love her advice to women (and men) about the need for audacity in professional and personal life, I also harbored some concern that audacity comes more cheaply to folks who aren't struggling financially. There was a fun piece about Sheryl's soon-to-come riches in the Times yesterday, and one of the quotations archly noted the same point:

“I’m a huge fan of her accomplishments and think she’s a huge role model in some ways, but I think she’s overly critical of women because she’s almost implying that they don’t have the juice, the chutzpah, to go for it,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research organization on work-life policy, and director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University.

“I think she’s had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition,” Ms. Hewlett continued. “Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they’re actually derailed by other things, like they don’t have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it.”

With much affection, I can think of a few friends in the academy who have internalized Sheryl's powerful message. But if Ms. Hewlett is right, as I think she is, then the message of toujours l'audace is one that must be shared by male mentors as well as female ones. I realize it's controversial to even acknowledge this, but I think male mentorship/sponsorship of women (the sort that happened when Summers took Sandberg under his wing) has been jeopardized by concerns that the menfolk want to avoid the creation of whispering campaigns of inappropriate behavior. There certainly was a lot of icky or abusive stuff that used to happen that our new norms have (thankfully) made less frequent.  But, as a consequence, doors remain always open, and the kind of mentorly candor necessary for professional growth is, accordingly, more rare, and perhaps less desired. Perhaps the best way to overcome this is not by shutting out mentorship altogether, but by mentoring in small groups. For instance, the other day, we had a faculty lunch talking about tactics and strategies relevant to the law review submission process, as well as the craft of a good thesis. Peer mentoring also happens. E.g., our juniors are meeting frequently to workshop ideas, and, much like at Prawfsfests and similar venues, there is space and time for safe feedback, though again, candor, expertise (or insight into the folkways of an institution from a senior member) and individualized attention might be reduced because of the group dynamic.

So some questions: What is to be done? Do we have a mentorship deficit? If so, what's the best way for it to be overcome? Relatedly, can audacity ripen w/o the safety net and sponsorship that Sandberg has had? Or is this entirely misguided, and Sheryl's work/life balance story should be of no greater interest than Zuck's? (Signed, civil, and substantive comments invited.)

Posted by Administrators on February 6, 2012 at 11:44 AM in Article Spotlight, Culture, Current Affairs, Employment and Labor Law | Permalink


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After an AALS panel I went to, I am beginning to wonder whether some young profs aren't OVER-mentored. I heard horror stories of faculty being steered away from their most interesting and/or practical work into senior faculty's idea of what was "hot" scholarship.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Feb 7, 2012 11:40:10 PM

Thanks Margaret.

Via Jeannie Suk, I just came across an interesting blog post from Slate's XX blog on Sandberg that might be of interest, entitled, In Defense of Sheryl Sandberg.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Feb 7, 2012 8:25:22 PM

I am a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg too. Mentorships often seem to depend on the compatibility of the involved parties, regardless of their gender. So, it is a shame to limit them according to gender lines, or to allow the prospect of gossip to deter opposite-sex mentorships. A strong showing of opposite-sex mentorships could help make them standard.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Feb 6, 2012 3:21:42 PM

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