Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is the latest feminist manifesto and seems to be growing in influence rather than diminishing each day. The "Lean In Movement" is growing by leaps and bounds. There are Lean in Circles popping up all over. This is despite the undeniable fact that there isn't really anything "whack upside the head" new about anything Sandberg says in her book. Her descriptions of the sexist obstacles women in the workplace face each and every day and how they impact the ability to grow professionally or even close the well-known wage gap are actually a bit of "duh – tell us something we don't know." There also isn't anything new in her conclusion that we simply cannot "have it all" when it comes to work and family. Nor in her call for women to "work together" (stick together) to better the odds that women will ultimately be successful.
Despite there being nothing new in any of this, there has certainly been a healthy, necessary debate about this book and what it means, or doesn't mean, for women in the world of work. This is a Good Thing.
But IMO there is also a bad thing: there has been too little debate about the questions I am most interested in: (a) whether Sandberg's cultural myopia in writing Lean In makes her advice not only irrelevant for Black and other women of color, but dangerous; and (b) what is Sheryl Sandberg's advice to "Lean In" leaning us all into?
To get a fair sense of what is going on with Lean In, you really have to read the book itself. Here's a small taste, though, of Sandberg's thinking on the question of why there are too few women leaders in business:
Much of Sandberg's opinions, and much of the success of Lean In seems to be pushback against the entire "opt out" movement that white professional women started about a decade ago. In that movement, well-educated, successful women were "voluntarily" leaving the workforce...to be better mommies. This debate was irrelevant to most working class women, and most women of color, then--and it remains largely so so now. Black women have always worked. We've never had the collective luxury of discussing any other options. Thus, the entire debate of "opt out" vs. "Lean In" when it comes to professional employment is a debate without substance when it comes to the workplace and Black women.
A key argument that Sandberg makes in Lean In is that success and likeability are inversely correlated for women: the more likeable a woman, the less successful. She also says that women who are ultimately successful 'seek and speak their truth," and are authentic. This may well be true for white women trying to "make it" or having "make it" in business. I have not studied the data. This diagnosis of the problem, however, is completely uninformed about the experience of Black women in the professional workplace. There are some obvious reasons why, IMO.
First, Black women are notorious for "seeking and speaking" their truth in the workplace and being willing to be up front, aka "at the table." So much so that we are routinely deemed "unprofessional", "angry", "hard to get along with", emasculating, you name it. Whether in elite workforces like higher education, the halls of political power, or the workforce in general. We are routinely criticised for the very type of behavior Sheryl Sandberg indicates every. single. day.
Hell, we can't even wear our natural hair to work without it being deemed "unprofessional" at best and "revolutionary" at worst.
[I speak from personal experience. Despite an elite education, decent mentorship, lots of awards for someone that tries to keep her head down, a pretty good reputation in my field-- and a self-imposed work schedule that resulted in the first meaningful vacation from work I've had in 30+ years being when I came down with an illness that almost killed me earlier this year. And faced, upon my return, my colleagues with far far less legal experience, far far less management experience, and far far less recognition in our "marketplace" having all been promoted ahead of me. With no explanation to this day from my boss of what they did "right" and I did "wrong" that caused them to jump economically and professionally ahead of me, or what I need to do, precisely, to also be "promoted."]
Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States (followed closely by Latinas) and it isn't because we succeeded by "Leaning In" in the corporate workplace. It's because those of us who truly are following Sandberg's advice are underappreciated, underpaid, overworked, and just plain old sick and tired of being sick and tired. Close to 75% of Black women in the professional workplace share this lament, it appears.
[Latina professionals in the workplace face similar barriers to "leaning in"; the prescription to be more assertive a similar recipe for professional disaster so long as the underlying racism and Eurocentrism that dictates what "appropriate behavior" for women in the workplace is supposed to look like remains unresolved.]
Perhaps in response to the criticism that her book doesn't really discuss how her advice lines up with the work experiences of women of color or working class women, Sandberg recently chose a very interesting place to launch her latest effort, Lean In's "Campus Initiative": Howard University. Yes, that Howard University. It is unclear whether this launch was planned in advance or an off-the-cuff remark that Sandberg made while speaking at Howard's B school just a couple of weeks ago. Who knows? I certainly don't think that Sandberg's choice to make her only live appearance in support of the Lean In Campus Initiative be Howard is an accident. I think it's a direct attempt to try and mitigate the legitimate criticism she's received for having failed to address the experience of nonwhite, nonwealthy women in the workplace.
But no surprise there: whites using Blacks for validation of their ideas is definitely our cultural paradigm.
It remains to be seen whether Sandberg actually responds to the issues that Howard students might raise that are different than what she normally talks about (she has a live stream discussion scheduled for this week at the school as follow-up to her recent visit).
She may not be actually held to do so, however. Sandberg's prescription is resonating with some Black women for what appears to be entirely unintended reasons (unintended because Sandberg's whiteness just caused her to miss these issues). Notably, some of the most support for Sandberg's feminist manifesto have come from Black professional women—even though the path of most Black professional women in the workplace is perhaps the least like Sandberg's.
By and large, Black women have not been overly critical of Sandberg's myopia. Instead, there have been quite a few articles of the "Sure, she's myopic, but maybe she has a point?" variety in Afrocentric media. Especially online. Black women all over the 'net are being urged to adopt at least some of Sandberg's prescriptions, to see how they apply to us. The support sometimes is perplexing: for example, the same woman who jumps off the grid of what one gathers was a lucrative corporate career to form an MBA organization for Black women nonetheless co-signs that, yes, Black women are not leaning in like they are supposed to. They are "not being at the table", "leaving before leaving" and all the other evils that Sandberg insists is the reason women aren't equal in the corporate work world.
The area of support that gives me the most pause is the way that Sandberg's long-known belief that women should be picking husbands the way that folks pick quality jewelry if they have any hope of professional success is being embraced by Black women. Indeed, coming on the heels of Steve Harvey's self-serving advice to Black women to "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man", (this stupidity coming to a movie theatre near you soon!) more articles have been written about Sandberg's marriage prescription's application to the lives of Black women than any other subject in Black media.
Yes, sisters: one of the messages that seems to be resonating for a lot of Black women that bother to blog about things like Lean In is that Sandberg may have a point when it comes to picking the wrong husbands. As, for example, the Black author of the linked article asks (with a straight face, I might add): "Sandberg counsels that choosing a mate is one of the most important decisions a working woman will make. If that is true, lack of support, in addition to systemic sexism and racism, may explain why black women fare worse than their white counterparts in the halls of power."
That's funny. Here all us upscale sisters thought that the advice that if we wanted Black husbands we had to stop being so bougie. Which one of us hasn't been hearing for decades that the reason that professional Black women struggle to find Black husbands is because we're too choicy?
As always, they got us going and coming ;)]
Anyhow, it remains to be seen whether, and what, the relevance of the "Lean In" movement truly has to women of color success in the workplace. These are questions that, judging from Sandberg's reaction to the early criticisms surrounding the lack of discussion in the book about the differing experiences of women who did not share her race, her class, or her luck (Sandberg's had a lot of support from some very important men, as she makes clear in her book)
In addition to what I consider her missing the boat when it comes to professional advice for Black women in the workplace, Lean In has a far greater failing IMO: a failing of vision.
If Sandberg truly believes (and I have no reason to doubt her sincerity) that things "haven't been going so well" with white men ruling the world, why on earth is she promoting the idea—the brand—of leaning in even more to the methods that men have used to secure and maintain power as the best solution?
This is a question that really needs to be front and center when one discusses what "women's equality" truly means. And, right now, it isn't.
Look at the women that the business world holds up as leaders (other than Oprah):
Sheryl Sandberg's fame and success, and the mentorship by powerful men like Larry Summers, are well known. Arianna Huffington's source of fame? In addition to hitting a divorce jackpot and her seeing-the-light as a former Republican, she is best known for Huffington Post, a website platform notorious for getting paid on the backs of talented writers without paying them fair compensation (both before and after its acquisition by AOL.) Rachel Sklar, unknown to me before this piece, appears to have given up on being a lawyer for become a "thought leader" online, focusing on empowering "awesome women" largely by fighting to close the numerical gender gap in the halls of corporate power.
I admit that there is one name on this list that just makes me throw my hands up, when it comes to professional women giving what they deem to be feminist advice to other professional or professional-ascending women: Sara Blakely. Ms. Blakely is a billionaire. She's a billionaire whose fortune did not come after decades, but just years. Not because she got into law school. She didn't. Or business school. She didn't. Or any other type of professional training program that one traditionally thinks of when one thinks of "the fast track". She didn't.
This woman is a billionaire because she looked in the mirror and despite being a reasonably fit looking woman going by her photos, and didn't like what she saw ("My own butt was the inspiration...") So, rather than learning to love her body just as it was, she created a pair of drawers, Spanx, that create the illusion that women don't really have lumps, bumps, and spots that mainstream rules about what is a sexy, attractive women is supposed to look like.
(Oh, and because Oprah announced that she wore those drawers on her show.)
[For the record, I too have Spanx. I don't knock Spanx. I knock the fact that a woman who had she been of color would have likely been an utter failure professionally received oodles of venture capital for teaching women the same thing that the old-school girdles taught us about our bodies--they aren't "pleasing." Especially big butts (of which I am the proud owner.) She is being touted as an example for how women in business should be through a business idea that is embracing, not rejecting, the very same sexist ideals about what a healthy female form is supposed to look like that our feminist elders were trying to free us from.]
All this competing advice to either "opt out" or "Lean In" over the last decade no doubt has women feeling like pushme-pull you toys. Sandberg's book is just the latest salvo in a war that appears to be unwilling to have the true fight: the fight for a workplace that allows women's equality because it allows for the full expression of a person's life, through all of its phases.
Coming to this conclusion is not rocket science. Far more insightful writers have attempted, during the "opt out" and "Lean In" wars, to point out what these narratives fundamentally misapprehend: "It's the jobs, stupid/."
Underlying all this is a genuinely new trend that the moms-go-home stories never mention: the all-or-nothing workplace. At every income level, Americans work longer hours today than fifty years ago. Mandatory overtime for blue- and pink-collar workers, and eighty-hour expectations for full-time professional workers, deprive everyone of a reasonable family life.Or any life at all.
Frankly, IMO we would as women benefit a lot more from spending time talking about solutions to a culture of work that both demands that women be stereotypical men and that kills them off early when they can't ever meet the stereotype.
More of us need to ask the question presented by Dissent in its overview of what has now become the "Lean In" brand, and discussion of the subrosa support of the still-male-owned Facebook in Sandberg's success: Who Wins from Leaning In?
If resistance to working harder is the problem, then it follows that work, in Sandberg’s book, is a solution. Work will save us; but, the reader may be asking, from what? By taking note of the forms of human activity that do not appear in Lean In, we see that what work will save us from is not-work: pleasure and other nonproductive pastimes. “Framing the issue as work-life balance—as if the two were diametrically opposed—almost ensures that work will lose out,” Sandberg writes. In response to the threat of work losing out, she goes on to outline how one transforms one’s life entirely into work. There is no not-work, or pleasure, in Lean In. Aside from the possibility of having better sex with one’s husband after he has assisted with household chores (work makes everything better, including sex!), Sandberg does not mention pleasure. Sandberg assumes instead that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?In other words, Lean In's fundamental prescription is to give in, to accept what is, as the price of personal success—in the hopes that maybe, someday, it will be easier to be "equal to men."
. . .
Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminist Mystique, but an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Equal to men, it seems to me, in a world that fundamentally enshrines the mandate to "Live to Work" as the sine qua non of feminist success. As another Latina critique of Lean In noted:
Sandberg asks women to "sit at the table," to "Lean In." Which sounds good on the surface, but what she's asking is for women to Lean Into a corporate culture created by men. The argument is that by submitting to the initial rules of this male-dominated corporate structure, women can then make changes from within that self-same structure. For me, this gives women a false sense of hope. It won't work, not in the big scale or in the long run. It hasn't worked. What it's proved to do is put women in a position of exhaustion, where they are constantly fighting themselves in order to get to a place where they can ask for pregnancy parking spot privileges so they don't have to "waddle" for miles into work (a victory for Sandberg in her book).So, at what cost, "Leaning in?" In the name of pursuing women's equality, are we essentially pursuing the end of any cogent attempt to bring the world of work in line with the idea of life itself? Are we, by embracing rather than rejecting out of hand her opinions as a prescription for all but a tiny minority of women, embracing that life is work? And rejecting the idea that the purpose is work is to allow us to life?
There is a reason that the Sheryl Sandberg's of the world don't talk about the true cost of "leaning in": her prescriptions would be dismissed out of hand for all but the tiny minority of professional women who can afford to pay it. (Sheryl Sandberg has been asked what type of help she gets, and has steadfastly declined to say. But if it took the CEO of Yahoo, Melissa Mayer, putting a nursery in her office to keep at the top of her game, that should give you some idea. Of course, this is the same woman who eliminated working offsite for everyone else.) More significantly, the dirty secret of that cost is this: for the Sheryl Sandberg's and Melissa Mayers to succeed as businesswomen, other lower status women are required to prop them up—in the shadows, unseen, low-educated, low-paid, low-status. Unrespected.
Where is Sheryl's discussion of the heroism of the women (OK so I don't know that it's all women, but considering that 94% of all child care workers are women, a little overinclusively is not unfair). Where is her credibility on the question of what it will take those who haven't had her luck "making it" to succeed when she's a billionaire yet the nonprofit she founded and serves as Chairwoman of the Board for is recruiting unpaid interns to promote your concept/brand telling women to "be at the table", "speak up", and "seize power."
Lots of questions.
Thus, while I appreciate Sandberg having re-articulated the obvious (that the work world sucks for women, and that sexism continues to limit our success to far below what our talents would suggest), I would have preferred the national platform discussion created by Lean In to have focused on this type of prescription for women's professional equality:
Rather than working harder to succeed at someone else’s game it may be time to work smarter and succeed on our own terms. And Sandberg may be of some help. A big part of her approach to business involves understanding the playing field and reworking it your advantage. As the saying goes, you have to know the rules well to break them effectively.