When Leaning In is not enough

By Lan Anh Le

Last April when Lean In’s novelty was stirring up lots of buzz, I attended Sandberg’s book conference at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. At the event, every guest checked in with an iPad and was directed to a high-ceilinged auditorium. I had just gotten out of class and was wearing the usual tee and jean shorts combination, while all around me, the attendees, mostly female students from the Graduate School of Business (GSB), were wearing business casual and patent pumps.

When Sandberg made an entrance amid the murmurings and applause, she asked the audience, “How many of you want to be No. 1 in your field? What would you do if you were not afraid?” In a friendly and unaffected tone, she told personal stories about being disliked at work for being over-ambitious and guilt about mothering. Then she proceeded to make numerous points about women’s climb up the corporate ladder, backed by anecdotes of how Sandberg herself overcame discriminatory obstacles in the workplace.

I appreciated how Sandberg, a natural and charming public speaker, was so vocal about female empowerment and articulated the emotions that some working women would have in a gender divided world. Moreover, she made her messages incredibly accessible. The advices she offered are pretty clear-cut: don’t waste time on people-pleasing, marry a supportive partner who would help out with housework and parenting, work hard to succeed at the highest professional level, own your own success. 

But at the same time I was disappointed. I don’t mean to undercut corporate feminist dialogues, because they do resonate among many women and contribute certain valuable things to female empowerment. Yet, I was thinking, “here is another privileged and powerful figure trying to empower a demographic that’s also somewhat privileged and powerful.” Sandberg has essentially produced a feminist manifesto that excludes many women who come from different classes, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation. Sitting in a room full of silky blouses and patent pumps, I felt almost other-ized for my lack of pretty business casual. I also have never wanted to be “No. 1 in my field,” mainly because I didn’t even know what my major was at the time, but also because being No. 1 has never been too important to me. Female leadership does not equate to being CEO of a powerful corporation. Leadership can be making a difference in your community. It can be designing a public service project, or working with a team to create a powerful work of art. I have never thought of feminism as “owning your own success”. To me, it’s challenging systematic injustice and eradicating gender-based barriers in a collective and inclusive manner, not advancing yourself, and mainly yourself, in the workplace.

That’s not to say that Sandberg does not have a contribution to make. If you’re interested in achieving gender equity in the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, Sandberg eloquently talks about how to not sell yourself short as a woman in the workplace and shares business strategies on how to make it to the top. This is of unquestionably important as women are underrepresented in top-level jobs. However, Sandberg’s approach involves addressing what individual women can do to adapt to and thrive within the corporate world. She suggests that it’s up to the individual to make some psychological adjustments to fit into the system (don’t self-sabotage, don’t cry if a man calls you bossy, do what you would do if you weren’t afraid), while changing that entire system of gendered attitudes should be the goal instead… 

Moreover, the promising glam shot of the female corporate leader should not mislead us into thinking that complete gender balance is being achieved and that all women will have it better. For many women, it’s not as simple as merely leaning in. The situation in which “if you lean forward, you’ll get promoted and then you’ll get paid more and you’ll be able to afford better childcare” only happens when you don’t have to face the more systematic barriers, because you have transcended them, perhaps by being born into a well-off family, being able to go to Harvard and having Larry Summers as your mentor. (Summers, alongside whom Sandberg had worked closely with, is the same person who hypothesized that the shortage of women in certain disciplines could be explained by innate differences in mathematical ability).

What happens when you are held back due to economic and family situations? There is no question that Sandberg has worked hard, but her background has also made it more possible for her to make it to the top. Multi-generational poverty is a real issue, but an issue that was not effectively addressed in Sandberg’s manifesto. Sandberg promotes trickle-down feminism, where those who make it to the top will somehow help to eradicate gender inequalities in general. “If we can succeed in adding more female voices at the highest levels, we will expand opportunities and extend fairer treatment to all.” I read this as a lack of cross-class solidarity. Empowering the individual (and privileged) woman in order to improve overall equality does not sound realistic.

Lean In, for the purpose that it serves, is great but limiting. It would be really awesome if someone as influential as Sandberg used the vast resources they have (a wonderful publicity team, their status in the business world, their ability to get published in The Wall Street Journal) to recognize the needs of people who are otherwise excluded and marginalized and address issues beyond corporate power.

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