Executive Feminism


Today, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg dominate Twitter feeds, blogs, television, and newspaper stands for their opposing views on feminism.  Both women are business elite moguls who made their feminist views public to open the dialogue about women in the work place and family/work balance.  Sandberg argues we can alleviate gender inequality and the work/life balance struggle with a bottom-up approach where women behave with more confidence and ambition, and lean in to assert themselves in higher ranking positions.  Slaughter attributes the limiting factors of a successful work/life balance a problem with the system, such as unfriendly work policies, making her approach bottom-down.

For a breakdown of Executive Feminism, click the links below:

Background | Theories | Similarities | Critique | Conclusion


  • Sheryl Sandberg is 43 years old and has 2 children.  She graduated from Harvard College and received a M.B.A. from Harvard Business College.  Her previous work experience includes being a management consultant at McKinsey and Company, the Chief of Staff to the US Secretary of Treasury, the Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, to currently COO of Facebook.  Her media breakthrough for her feminist beliefs occurred in 2010 with her TED Talk as well as her 2011 Commencement Speech at Barnard College graduation ceremony. (Forbes)
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter is 54 years old and has 2 children.  Slaughter received her B.A. from Princeton University, M.Phil. from Oxford University, and J.D. from Harvard Law School.  Her past work experience includes serving as the Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department, and is an international lawyer, political scientist, foreign policy analyst, and public commentator who has taught at University of Chicago and is now a Professor and Dean at Princeton University. Her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” published in April 2012 served as her launching point for her feminist views and thus the Sandberg/Slaughter debate. (Princeton University)

Sandberg’s Theory

  • The major point of Sandberg’s theory is that women face inequality in the workplace because limit themselves out of career advancing opportunities.  This bottom up approach suggests women need to “Lean In” when thinking about leaving a company to have children, and “sit at the table” in order to convey power and confidence in the conference room.  She notes that women both consciously and subconsciously hinder themselves from better career management, and by reaffirming your commitment to yourself and career you will get to the top and achieve successful work/life balance.  She also promotes the idea that companies would benefit from more inclusion and diversity, prompting the use of healthy mentorships where both men and women can communicate effectively to debunk misunderstandings.  Sandberg urges not to view a career as a ladder to climb, but a jungle gym.  She quotes, “A jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.” (Fortune)
  • In all, she finds it crucial to find a life partner that will split child care and house  duties 50/50, urges women not to underestimate their own abilities, and don’t cut back on ambition out of fear that you won’t be able to balance work and children. (NY Times)
  • Recently, she published and elaborated these messages in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, on March 11, 2013.  To publicize the book and her message, she has made appearances on NPR, 60 Minutes, as well as on the cover of Time Magazine and a spread in Cosmopolitan, among others (Mayor Bloomberg hosted her book launch party).
  • Accompanied with the book, Sandberg launched Lean In Circles, which require groups of 8-10 women to gather monthly to discuss “Lean In” experiences and positive messages.  Lean In Circles can be accessed on LeanIn.org, which also provides a digital blog, online community, as well as a series of motivational and educational mini web seminars to empower women.

Slaughter’s Theory

  • Slaughter’s view on feminism came entirely out of her own personal need to express herself after years of preaching “women CAN have it all.”  She wrote The Atlantic article after coming to the realization she needed to be there for her son who was 14-years-old and struggling with school.  Shortly thereafter, she left government in to teach and be closer to her family. (The Atlantic)
  • Slaughter argues women are held to unattainable standards for personal and professional success (Kantor).  She attributes the lack of women in high-ranking positions to a problem with the system, i.e. make school schedules match work schedules, create more leniency to work at home, offer more career breaks, freeze eggs. (Kantor)
  • Furthermore, Slaughter urges women to reaffirm their commitment to their family to achieve a successful work/life balance, and blames the social norms and the inflexibility of the U.S. workplace that continue to privilege career advancement over family. Once high-powered women speak about the importance of family and insist on changing workplace norms, social institutions will begin changing these norms.  (Al Jazeera)

Slaughter’s Critique on Sandberg

  • In The Atlantic article, a Lean In book review, and other public appearances, she has openly critiqued Sandberg on her views, whereas Sandberg refused to address The Atlantic piece (but features her on LeanIn.org!).
  • In her book review of Lean In, Slaughter notes, “the problem isn’t leaning back but encountering a tipping point, a situation in which what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained — regardless of ambition, confidence or even an equal partner.”
  • “Sandberg’s approach, as important as it is, is best at half loaf,” suggesting that Sandberg only tells half the story by focusing on the “internal obstacles”, where it both takes ambition and societal changes to make a work life balance more feasible.
  • She also believes Sandberg’s book is a “young woman’s book” by saying, “We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’” Even more so, she argues “For both the women who have made it and the men who work with them, it is cheaper and more comfortable to believe that what they need to do is simply urge younger women to be more like them, to think differently and negotiate more effectively, rather than make major changes in the way their companies work.”  She highlights blaming the gender disparity on the younger generation is the easy way out.
  • Slaughter is also very active on Twitter and responsive to users’ questions about the debate. We’re certain there isn’t hostility due to the fact that Slaughter mentions it on Twitter (“I assure you Sheryl’s cool w/ the [book] review!”, March 9, 2013, in response to a user suggesting otherwise).  Slaughter repeatedly compliments Sandberg on Twitter, wrote a positive book review, and even suggested her book to a room full of Yale young women students.
  • On Twitter Slaughter also clarifies, “Let me say it again: Having it all simply means having what the vast majority of men have: having a family w/o making major career trade-offs.” (March 12, 2013)
  • Furthermore on Twitter, she tweets, “I don’t criticize @sherylsandberg b/s she’s rich.  Lean In is valuable 4 wmn in business.  But wmn need much more 2 advance…” (March 17, 2013).

Similarities & Executive Feminism

  • Even though we could easily split Slaughter and Sandberg into two camps, we could just as easily point out their similarities in terms of their ideologies and as powerful women.
  • Both women are extremely privileged, in positions of power, and came out of families of wealth and high education.  Sandberg and Slaughter have both publicly announced they are of the upper-class, and suggest their messages are addressed towards women like them.  Furthermore, its evident they both see that there needs to be a change in the work/life balance culture that revolves around women, one where women can enjoy both a hetero normative family and a successful career.
  • Both Slaughter and Sandberg theories derive from sentiments created by the 20th century feminist narrative, where, “Freedom, especially for middle-class women who had been associated with the domestic realm, translated into the ability to transcend the private sphere and enter into the public world of political representation and work.” Women started having to make decisions between pursuing a career (progressive) or staying home taking care of family (traditional). (Al Jazeera)
  • Journalists are calling Slaughter and Sandberg theories “executive feminism”, that is this contemporary open-discussion about gender bias from top professional women serving as role models.  Executive feminism encompasses the potential backlash from outside viewers who are skeptical of women in power, making any progress difficult.  Other criticisms include this so-called “cat-fight”  that bloggers and journalists created once Slaughter made a remark on Sandberg.  Articles reinforce this duel with headlines like “Are You Mom Enough?” (Time Magazine), or “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life” (The Washington Post).
  • Joan Williams suggests the problem with this is that it reinforces the “whining” “at-each others throats”, that make the women more unlikeable than they already are with their privilege and power.  Williams concludes, “Women will never reach, or thrive in, positions of power as long as their wealth is shameful or their opinions belittled. Executive feminism recognizes that even wealthy and powerful women run into gender bias — and the resulting clog in the pipeline affects all of us. If our automatic reaction is to criticize these women for being too powerful and too successful, that doesn’t mean she’s doing anything wrong. It means we are.” (HuffPost)

Critique of Executive Feminism

  • The major critique of Sandberg and Slaughter executive feminist beliefs is that it is overtly exclusive.  “Executive” says it all – the women who have been privileged enough to attend a good school, have money to go a good college, and the resources and stability in a lifelong partner are the tools to even start thinking about either Slaughter or Sandberg theories.  According to Al Jazeera, “in 2009, 27.5 percent of African-American women, 27.4 percent of Hispanic women and 13.5 percent of white women in the US were living below the poverty line. Moreover, 35.1 percent of households headed by single moms were food insecure at some point in 2010, meaning that they did not have enough food at all times for an active, healthy life.”  The combination of poverty and class with race makes the theory of executive feminism exclusive and illiberal, according to the author Catherine Rottenberg.  Furthermore, whats necessary is better child care and job security, physical security, and higher paying wages.
  • Daria Burke, Founder and CEO of Black MBA, writes in the HuffPost, “As women of color, we often feel the need to prove our intellect and capability, thus focusing putting a disproportionate amount of focus on performance forgetting that image and exposure are equally important.”


  • In conclusion, both women focus on achieving the balanced women, whether its reaffirming a commitment to your career or to your family.  They comment on gender inequality in the work place as women needing to assert themselves (Sandberg) or women speaking out about the importance of family to drive a change in existing social norms.  As powerful, privileged  educated females, these messages are is directed towards women with similar scenarios, young in their careers or beginning to have families.  A combination of both self-motivated ambition as well as work-friendly policies and norms should be able to break the glass ceiling, but progress is slow-coming.  This contemporary movement, what journalists call executive feminism, can be successful if the general public can be more accepting of these elite women in power as well as diminish the “cat-fight” nature of their debate.  It is clear that executive feminism lacks a vast majority of the population, and that it is even more difficult for women of color to break the glass ceiling from pre-disposed discrimination.