I started Lean In with a little optimism — the bestseller has been bouncing around the hands of many well-respected colleagues of mine, and the media buzz it garnered about women’s rights in the workplace started some important conversations both nationally and in the office. But after powering through the book in a near-perpetual eye roll, I realized Sandberg’s clumsily written half-thoughts on feminism (thoughts she reluctantly introduces as “sort of a feminist manifesto”) are painfully damaging to the feminist movement. Instead of doing the bold, brave, and dangerous thing by challenging the systems of patriarchy and power in place that institutionalize sexism in the workforce, Sandberg does the safe thing by teaching women how to cope with institutionalized power structures, writing a handbook on how to maneuver around inherent workplace sexism.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Random House (2013)
Sandberg’s brand of feminism is one that overlooks her obvious privilege: she’s a Harvard-educated, middle-class white American, advocating for a workplace where women must alter their actions and behavior to accommodate oppressive institutions of sexism and power. Sandberg does take a moment in the book’s introduction to grapple with her privileges: “I am also acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work; other parts apply to situations that women face in every workplace, within every community, and in every home.” While Sandberg does acknowledge that her “sort-of manifesto” will mostly be applicable to those already in positions of power (women working in the business world) she fails to see that her wealth profoundly affects her opinions on women placing themselves high on the corporate hierarchy.
Notable feminist scholar and social justice activist bell hooks states in her review, “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” that “A billionaire, one of the richest women in the world, Sandberg deflects attention from this reality. The scholar bell hooks took her pen name from her mother and great-grandmother. She uses lowercase spelling in an attempt to remove herself from her writing to encourage those reading to focus on the words themselves rather than the author. As hooks put it in her 1989 book Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black, “bell hooks as I came to know her through sharing of family history, as I dreamed and invented her, became a symbol of what I could become, all that my parents had hoped little Gloria would never be. To personify it might raise critical questions.” Notably, Sandberg also dodges discussing the obstacles women will face along the way as they gain more wealth, especially women of color and women in poverty. The issue of money rarely shows up in the book — in fact, Sandberg only uses the word “billionaire” once — and by ignoring wealth, Sandberg consequently ignores women in poverty and avoids addressing that not all women want to ascend the corporate ladder. As hooks continues, “… the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.” Sandberg avoids acknowledging this economic fact, instead focusing on the optimism and hope of “equal work for equal pay.”
Feminist theorists hold that it is essential to acknowledge countless issues of classism, racism, female objectification and sexuality that complicate the idea that we can synthesize “women” down to one singular identity fighting for equality. Instead of turning to the primary sources of feminism by studying feminist theorists, Sandberg examines her own personal experiences with feminism and sexism in a series of anecdotes that weakly summarize and justify her opinions. This homogenous, invented identity erases the fact that privileged white women are often the beneficiaries of solidarity and understanding from their male colleagues, and women of color, women without financial privilege and women on the LBGTQA spectrum are not. Sandberg resorts to personal narratives to drive her points, clumsily summarizing complicated issues in over-generalizations, to wit: “Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it… For women, feeling like a fraud is a symptom of a greater problem. We consistently underestimate ourselves.”
More reviews of Lean In from Dissent, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and New Yorker. Sandberg goes on to summarize how her insecurities about her work ethic began in high school, and then carried on to college. Her professor of political philosophy assigns a five page paper, and after receiving a C, or the “equivalent to a failing grade” at Harvard, she learns she has been admitted to the prestigious university for her “personality, not [her] academic potential.” But instead of noting that the institution itself is inherently sexist and corrupt, she just “buckled down, worked harder, and by the end of the semester, [she] learned how to write five-page papers.” Sandberg spends more time explaining her internalized intellectual inferiority without ever questioning the system that cultivated those feelings in the first place. She doesn’t acknowledge that Harvard admitted her on sexist grounds, and then continues to adhere to the system that actively spurred feelings of inferiority that she internalizes well into her adult years. Instead of criticizing Harvard’s sexism, Sandberg uses this as a lesson for women to stop internalizing fears of intellectual inferiority (“underestimating themselves”) and gain the confidence they need by working hard and persevering. While these personal anecdotes do a sufficient job at highlighting the real problems she has encountered with sexism throughout her career, they offer no real strategies for combating structures of oppression. Sandberg also refuses to note that these structures of gender bias affect female minorities without similar privileges in a completely different way. Instead of criticizing the system that creates these injustices, Sandberg summarizes complicated issues of race, class, privilege and sexuality into a simplified lexicon of generalizations and verbal limitations.
This simplistic lexicon is sometimes frustrating to read, yet Sandberg does acknowledge her lack of experience with writing: “I am not a scholar, a journalist, or a sociologist. But I decided to speak out after talking to hundreds of women, listening to their struggles, sharing my own, and realizing that the gains we have made are not enough and may even be slipping.” Sandberg is deliberate with her language — she speaks in generalizations, wandering around the issues instead of addressing the root of institutionalized sexism. For example, Sandburg discusses how she has altered her behavior to feel more comfortable in meetings where she is often the only woman: “Trying to overcorrect is a great way to find a middle ground. In order for me to speak the right amount in a meeting I have to feel as if I’m saying very little. People who are shy will have to feel like they are saying way too much. I know a woman who naturally talks softly and forces herself to ‘shout’ in business meetings just to speak at an average volume. Overriding your natural tendencies is very difficult.” Sandberg suggests women must alter their behavior in meetings by shouting, speaking less or talking more without questioning why women feel overpowered and outnumbered during meetings. She fails to observe the gender biases already implicit in the meeting room and to challenge them sufficiently, instead offering solutions that work with the patriarchal system already in place.
Sandberg’s simplistic writing can be accessible to many readers with a basic understanding of feminism. The book takes on a conversational tone that works with a type of friendly, approachable feminism. Sandberg and her team market and frame her in the media as a likeable wife, friend and coworker who packages her optimistic feminist viewpoints as “feminism for everybody.” Unfortunately, when we look deeper, due to Sandberg’s refusal to touch on the larger issues of race, class and sexuality to challenge patriarchy, we see that this book is not for everybody; it’s for white women in the business world and the men they orbit. Although she uses generalizing logic to drive a valid point — we can all agree that gender bias exists in the workplace and it is important to talk about it — the larger issues with the book arise when we notice there is not a single instance where Sandberg challenges men to rethink and relearn their behavior. While it is important to point out the injustices set in place in an accessible and approachable manner for all people, as hooks emphasizes in her article, we must consider Sandberg’s refusal to question the patriarchal workforce beyond the concept of “equal work for equal pay.” Sandberg uses a trickle-down economic theory that asserts more women in positions of power on the corporate ladder would make work better for all women. This optimistic logic is not only revealing of her billionaire status, but also avoids asking the difficult questions: how will patriarchal thinking change if this occurs, and what motivation do men who support this gender bias have to change their belief systems? Will men in power be so eagerly accepting of this tilting of the scales? How will people in power react to suddenly having to extend the corporate benefits of capitalism to women?
Sandberg repeatedly polarizes the genders as “men and women,” a problematic, reductionist move that assumes that gender equality within the current system is the key to success. As hooks argues in her article, “No matter their standpoint, anyone who advocates feminist politics needs to understand the work does not end with the fight for equality of opportunity within the existing patriarchal structure. We must understand that challenging and dismantling patriarchy is at the core of contemporary feminist struggle — this is essential and necessary if women and men are to be truly liberated from outmoded sexist thinking and actions.” There is an inherent gender bias in the business world that is acknowledged throughout Lean In, yet Sandberg refuses to acknowledge the patriarchy that affirms this bias. Furthermore, she doesn’t question why men have this bias and how it can be unlearned for a better, more cohesive work environment.
After finishing Lean In, I was tired, kind of sad and genuinely terrified that this was the book framed by the media as the new, modern feminist handbook. And Sandberg is out with an actual handbook this month, her Lean In For Graduates. This isn’t because I disagree with Sandberg’s assertion that more women need to be empowered in the workplace. It was because I understood the dangers of a patriarchal re-framing of feminism that uses the palatable optimism and exclusionary tendencies of Sheryl Sandberg to market a pseudo-feminist agenda that shapes itself to patriarchal values. Instead of wrapping this up myself, I’d rather let hooks end this article for me: “Importantly, whether feminist or not, we all need to remember that visionary feminist goal which is not of a woman running the world as is, but of women doing our part to change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone — female and male.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.