April 3, 2017

Sheryl Sandberg leans in to the idea that leaning in might not be enough


Sheryl Sandberg. Via WikiMedia Commons.

Four years ago, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg made a big splash, and spawned a movement, with the release of her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. It was no less than a cultural sensation, a sort of career manual for women facing institutionalized white-collar sexism. In the words of Jessica Guynn at USA Today,

Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead launched a national conversation on gender in the workplace and an online community of millions of working women ready to bulldoze the barriers they face, from being paid less and promoted less frequently, to carrying an uneven split of the housework and child care.

Four years later, Sandberg says working women are no better off. They are facing pushback in business and in politics, both in the U.S. and around the world.

As Trump might say: Sad!

As well meaning as it might have been, much of the issue, which anyone would be remiss to ignore, is the limited idea of struggle that Lean In accommodated. An updated version of “Can women have it all?”, Lean In seemed appropriate to, and meant for, only a small subset of women — those for whom the only question was, “How much are you willing to ask for?” For those who could feasibly demand more from their bosses, and also afford an unfavorable response; those who had families to lean on while they were leaning in; those, in short, who were in a place of privilege to demand more. Presumably, a woman earning minimum wage, or struggling to afford healthcare, or working two jobs, wouldn’t have had much time or space for the invocation to *just ask for more.*

So now, four years later, it’s encouraging to hear Sandberg acknowledge those limitations.

I posted publicly on Mother’s Day last year that I think I didn’t fully appreciate what it was to be a single mother. I certainly wrote about it in Lean In but I also wrote a whole chapter called “Make Your Partner a Real Partner,” which for people who didn’t have one must have been very hard to read.

I have thought a lot about what it is to be a single mother because now I am one. And financially, I don’t face the struggles that so many do. Thirty-seven percent of single mothers are living in poverty, 40% if you are black or Latina. That’s unacceptable.

But her focus, on the eve of the release of her new book, doesn’t seem to have shifted.

My goal is very clear, and I wrote about it in Lean In, which is that women run half our companies and countries and men run half our homes. As much as I wish that could happen in four years, I don’t think that’s a likely time period. But I think it can happen sooner than we think. Part of it is having that aspiration and that goal. I think we too often suffer from the tyranny of low expectations.

What’s not mentioned here, in Sandberg’s statement of her goal? Women working together to raise the minimum wage, or ensure fair and equal access to healthcare, or even to unite in the face of of a president who was caught on tape bragging about serial sexual assault. A feminism focusing only on women’s access to the existing framework of power denies the existence and struggle of most women not within striking distance of a CEO seat. Without discounting the sadness of Sandberg’s recent history, how is this is an embrace of experiences other than her own; an experience other than privileged, wealthy, and, above all, secure?

Elizabeth Logan at Glamour sums up questions over Sandberg’s corporate feminism:

Some have questioned whether Sandberg’s “corporate” brand of feminism is appropriate at a time when the majority party’s political agenda is so radically anti-woman. In 2015, Sandberg publicly praised Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for putting his family commitments on equal footing with his professional obligations; fathers and husbands putting in family time is integral to spousal equality. But since Speaker Ryan and his party aren’t exactly friends of the working mother (the GOP platform, aside from Ivanka’s vague musings, doesn’t include paid family leave), many saw this as a sign that Sandberg was too willing to play nice with, well, the patriarchy.

Well, Ivanka’s vague musings have been exposed to be worth just (if even) that. And while more seats in the boardroom is a worthy goal, wow, do some things have to change for that to be the main goal.  In the inimitable words of Jessa Crispin, from Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, “Asking for a system that was built for the express purpose of oppression to ‘um, please stop oppressing me?’ is nonsense work.”



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.