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Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton & the politics of 'leaning in' (feat. Tina Fey)

It was January 2008 and Barack Obama was facing off against Hillary Clinton in the last debate before the New Hampshire primary.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

It was January 2008 and Barack Obama was facing off against Hillary Clinton in the last debate before the New Hampshire primary. The moderator asked Clinton: What can you say to voters who “see your résumé and like it, but are hesitating on the likeability issue?”

When Clinton joked that the question hurt her feelings, Obama interjected, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.”

The remark—which seemed to patronize Clinton—struck a raw nerve with women voters, and some suggested it cost Obama the primary.

That same month, Sheryl Sandberg was at the Davos Economic Forum meeting with Mark Zuckerberg who was soon to announce that he was hiring her away from Google to be Facebook's new Chief Operating Officer.

Clinton's New Hampshire win and Sandberg's role at Facebook marked a watershed moment for women in power, right? Well, yes and no.

Sandberg certainly did well for herself, and is looking to pay it forward with her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

“As women get more successful, they are less liked, by men and women," she told ABC News in an interview which aired Monday on Good Morning America. "As men get more successful, they are better liked. And so when we look at what happens, why more women don’t lead, why we don’t have a woman president, well it’s because you have to be liked to be promoted.”

As secretary of state, Clinton wound up with higher favorability ratings than President Obama.  But in 2008 she did not ultimately win out as the Democratic nominee. Voters have not yet liked any woman enough to promote her from candidate to nominee, much less vote her into office as president.

For that to happen, it might take more than women having the initiative to lean in. While Clinton's popularity rose in the State Department, unlike during the campaign, her tough negotiations were largely out of the public eye. When Clinton took center stage to testify at highly contentious hearings on the Benghazi attacks, she found herself depicted as a raging maniac.

Viewing Sandberg's framework of assertiveness and ambition through the political lens, it seems necessary for a conscious shift on the part of the public to take place as well.

Perhaps another woman who zoomed to the top of her field, Tina Fey, can give a bit of perspective. In 2008 she said on Saturday Night Live: "I think what bothers me the most is when people say that Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that. Yeah, she is. And so am I.… You know what? Bitches get stuff done.… Get on board. Bitch is the new black!"

Watch Martin Bashir's discussion on Sandberg's new book with political strategist, Angela Rye: