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Suddenly, Sheryl Sandberg's Critics Care About Working-Class Women

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon uses Sheryl Sandbergís new book to show how influential news outlets generally ignore the needs of struggling families.

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy
March 4, 2013
Atlantic Monthly

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In an editorial meeting during this last recession's crest I pitched a story about double coupons and their popularity among single moms battling to stay economically afloat.

A blank stare on the faces of everyone in the room greeted me.

"Oh, that is so interesting," one of the reporters seated around the circular table said. Then she paused. "What are those?"

I called my godmother immediately to tell her my story.

"Wow," she said, "they never heard of double coupons? They're really out of touch, huh? That's kind of scary."

Most of America's most influential voices have little familiarity with lower-class lives. The idea of pulling out your coupon caddy to get 80 cents off a jug of Tide is as familiar to them as a lunar landing. The Marshall's layaway line might as well be on Mars. As MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff noted recently, "The news media's current economic climate doesn't just shrink newsrooms and kill magazines: it also reifies professional class barriers." Or as one particularly salty cameraman once said to me while I was at ABC News, "I thought they only hired from the Ivys here." (I assured him I had not hidden my public-school education or my Prince George's County, Maryland roots.)

I thought of this class mismatch recently as I've followed the discussion surrounding Sheryl Sandberg's upcoming book, Lean In. Suddenly, and for the first time in a while, a bunch of major news outlets are talking about working-class women. All of a sudden a media that has rarely written or cared about the issues facing the women I grew up with—single moms, working days and nights and odd jobs, often at hourly wages and with no paid maternity leave—invokes their example as a reason to challenge Sandberg's argument about women and ambition.

As one writer wondered, echoing several others, "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?"

Another asked, "Where are women like the domestic workers in Sandberg's vision of leadership, which privileges women leading at the top, from the corner office, taking the head of the table?"

You don't have to enjoy Sandberg's book or to agree with her arguments about women's ambition and the structural issues stopping women from operating on a level playing field in the workplace. But to assert that her high-flying, private-plane riding, one-fourth of one percent, upper-class status demolishes her ability to talk about other women's lives or to offer online professional skills training if women want it seems to me to raise its own interesting kind of class bias against those who have a ton from those who have a lot, but less. If Sandberg's privilege makes her too out of touch to be relevant to the less fortunate, then a whole slew of people, including many reporters, should rethink their line of work.

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