“Leaning in” won’t liberate us

The term “lean in” has been used fairly regularly in feminist discourse. It originated in a book published by Sheryl Sandberg that discusses factors that hold women back in the workforce and how women, she says, often hold themselves back. And I largely disagree with her.

Image from Gigaom
Image from Gigaom

One of the main ideas in this book (and in Sandberg’s TED Talk) is that women are too often “leaning out” of their careers. For one reason or another – being discriminated against in the workplace,  being accused of being “bossy”, being outnumbered by men in the workplace – women can become discouraged at their jobs and afraid to take risks and climb the career ladder. When women have kids, Sandberg says, they tend to sacrifice time at work for time with their families, and their ambitions at their jobs are placed essentially on the back burner. She asserts that equal domestic responsibility with one’s romantic partner might work better instead, so that no one person is doing the bulk of the domestic labor, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare.

The “lean in” phenomenon has since sparked much discussion in feminist circles about how this philosophy is indicative of so-called “white feminism”– a non-inclusive, non-intersectional type of feminism which fails to represent  women of color and trans women, among other groups.

The “Lean In” philosophy has been heavily critiqued by feminist academics. bell hooks wrote an essay titled Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In in which she called out Sandberg for using “faux feminism” or “corporate feminism” that caters to the wealthy, white men who currently hold power in our society. (Basically, to empower wealthy, white women they should mimic wealthy, white men.) hooks also discusses how the philosophy only works within the current oppressive system instead of abolishing the whole kyriarchal system in favor of a better one.

Image from Lion's Roar
Image from Lion’s Roar

Another productive critique is Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg) by Rosa Brooks. Brooks discusses how “leaning in” puts responsibility on women to do more and more when really, women should be fighting for the right to not have to do twice the work to get equal results in our careers.

A further critique by Kathleen Geier has a thought-provoking quote with regards to Sandberg’s idea that if more women were in leadership positions, all women would benefit:

There is little reason to have faith that Sandberg-style ‘trickle-down’ feminism will benefit the masses any more than its economic equivalent has … her enthusiasm for capitalism and her advocacy of a depoliticized strategy that focused on self-improvement rather than collective action troubled many feminists on the left.

My own personal critique of the philosophy is based off of the assumptions it makes. It assumes that women have partners or want partners–how are you going to share housework with your partner if you are a single parent?

Another assumption Sandberg seems to make is that all women hold a career as their highest priority. It seems to look down on stay-at-home mothers as women as having incorrect priorities (i.e., those that don’t align with capitalist values.) Staying at home to care for one’s home and family is a valid and totally respectable choice, however – and can be financially preferable to working in a country where childcare gets extremely expensive.

“Leaning in” reminds me a lot of “respectability politics,” in which you show the oppressor you’re hardworking and well-behaved, instead of actually challenging the system that makes you oppressed in the first place. It also seems to  blame women for their own obstacles and struggles, much like a bootstraps ideologyit’s like saying, if only women “leaned in” enough, these obstacles wouldn’t exist.

Such a philosophy is also  ableist, in that it assumes all women are abled enough to make these “gains” in their workplace–going in overtime, going the extra mile, if you will. That is just not conducive to the energy levels or even the desires of some women.

Instead of putting the onus on women to fix their own workplace inequality individually, real gains should be made through policy change and cultural attitudes.

Domestic labor is currently grossly undervalued and racialized in the U.S. In addition, cultural ideas like those about “bossy” women or women being inherently less inclined to work in STEM fields need to become unacceptable.
We also need policies that include paid family and sick leave, universal childcare, raising the minimum wage, eradicating workplace discrimination and harassment, closing the wage gaps that exist with regards to gender, race, ability, etc. these steps could be a start to creating real solutions to the problems women face in the workforce.

13 responses to ““Leaning in” won’t liberate us

  1. I am so glad I found this site on Twitter. As a older, disabled minority woman with a criminal past, I have worked hard to overcome it and start up a small business. Despite hard work, blood sweat and tears, to no avail the obstacles are just too many to overcome. My business went under. But with my work background, experience and entrepreneurial spirit I am looking at other avenues. I just refuse to give up. I hate to think I devoted so much time and effort in my passion for it all to mean nothing.nn1

  2. Interesting, an also damn near impossible. Until women participate in voting, an many more women run for political positions, and or start by playing by man’s unwritten rules, it’s all the S.O.S. Im not just disgusted with most politicians, an many men, but half the women too. The most excitement I’ve seen with women, are the two African Women in Ferguson City running for city council position an winning! An the three African Women handling this Police Corruption in Baltimore, Women Mayor, Women State Attorney General, an Women White House Attorney General. Go Girls!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Occupation: Longshore Worker, ILWU Local 13, Crane Operator

  3. Thank you for writing this. I read “Leaning In” and found Sandburg’s approach elitist and demoralizing. Women should not be striving to be like their male counterparts. The whole system needs to be reworked to result in a more humane work environment that gives respect to what each person has to offer.

  4. I agree! In fact I wrote a book, Calling All Women, Your Chariot Awaits You, available on Amazon and Barnes and noble as print and ebook. It address this and many other issues concerning women empowerment.

  5. So the suggestion is that if I want to have a decent life, I must work like a slave thereby not have a life at all—but fool myself into seeing the job as my life—in which case, my life is controlled by someone else (boss)…defeating the purpose of why I want to work (so I can have some control over my own life). but as long as it is not coming from a personal relationship, being controlled by a man in a professional setting is encouraged as long as a woman is getting paid…. Then, why isn’t it okay for a husband to control his wife if he pays for everything? if her theory is true, then she should see no problems with this.
    Lean-in is an anti-feminist theory which sends the message that being controlled by someone is okay for financial gain (giving your life for money…or being a wife to an abusive husband for money). Indeed, Sheryl Sandberg is an abused career-wife who is defending her abuser and trying to set women up to go on a date with his best friend.

  6. I feel like most of these criticisms are unfair. They read as if critics have not actually read the book and are instead critiquing it based on the title or other peoples’ representations of what the book is. Sandburg could not be more explicit in the book that she is NOT suggesting that what she calls “leaning in” is a substitute for legal or social reforms mandating equal pay and prohibiting discrimination. And she is explicit that the observations she makes are most apropos for professional women, that these insights may not be as helpful for women in lower socio-economic job sectors. Most importantly she cautions that because of sexism, simply “leaning in” is not nearly enough; that is, many times because women are held to a double standard they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So sometimes you will be punished for asserting yourself, for not acting gender-appropriate as some perceive. But her point is that sometimes, because of this cultural conditioning and the threat of retaliation for non-conformance, we sabatoge ourselves by not taking credit, by not speaking up, by not owning our ambition, etc. The woman was trying to make a very straightforward point that she repeatedly and unequivocally signaled was a limited one and by no means a panacea or an indication that women’s struggles for equality in the workplace were entirely due to self-inflicted wounds. It is not her fault if a sexist media (sadly, including many women) tout it as “the solution” or as indicating that women are responsible for their own lack of progress.

    it frustrates me to no end that women who should be standing in solidarity with each other instead tear each other down. This was a book ABOUT the work place not about “choice” to raise kids (although I would point out that only a very privileged few can make that “choice” courtesy of a patriarchal system of marriage and division of gender roles. poor women don’t have that choice. And characterizing it that way is part of the problem), so it is not surprising or a flaw that she did not address childrearing. (She also, by the way, genuflected as one reflexively has to do at the altar of motherhood and this so-called “choice” and explicitly said that her advice was aimed at women who did want to advance in their careers. So it is also unfair to charge her with devaluing stay-at home moms). This just seems like a cheap shot that does not reflect knowledge of what she actually wrote and criticizes her for who she is not what she actually said. It is really discouraging.

  7. Tamara: I couldn’t agree more. So much of the criticism seems very disconnected from the actual book.
    I only wished she would have addressed the pay gaps between those at the top and those in middle management (and lower level workers) more. It hurts all workers, but especially working families who have the extra expense of child care.
    But definitely agree about criticism of Sandburg. There can and should be many voices of feminism. I too am discouraged by the infighting in Feminism right now.

  8. Thank you Tamara. Well stated. I wish critics could read this book and really pay attention to what the author actually says, instead of having their own agenda lead the way.

  9. For a woman to intellectually disagree with me…for a woman to intellectually get fired up and angry at me for saying something stupid that I did not pay attention to… for a woman to look at what I have said and give it enough thought to call me out on what wrong I may have said and did not realizing it…for a woman to get heated about the same issues that get me fired up… does that discourage me?
    No no no…
    But Honey, you better stop it—
    only for a little bit
    ‘cause am used to women nodding their heads in agreement—
    Playing the same card: befit
    Am so turned on by your disagreement….
    i was broke and you have given me back my two cents
    you have caught me off guard
    … give me a minute… let me gather my fu*&ing thoughts
    I am not bothered but your anger is definitely getting me hot!
    Tell me more of what I said wrong.
    Please dont aim to belong but… Be long
    No. don’t be quiet. Only to nonsense I prefer silence.
    A woman who is defiant?
    If it was not beautiful in it self I would join her in alliance.
    do you think that i am someone who hates the wrongs in others..
    but to my own wrong, I expect compliance?
    Tell me more. Baby girl. You are my definition of excitement.

  10. I think that Tamara is speaking about one thing and Allison is speaking about another. Allison has acknowledged what the book is about. She knows that it is only about the professional woman. Yes. Sandburg did mention that the book is only for these women. And Allison is saying that it makes it not a feminist book. The post is about whether the book is feminist or not? Can we consider it feminist? It is not criticizing the book’s content on its own. But it is criticizing it in the context of feminism. Two different things. So yes, the critique is not fair to the context of the book itself. But this blog is not about that … it is about the context of the book in relation to feminism. I think that is where the misunderstanding is.
    In that, it is not a feminist book … And what Allison and other feminists are saying can be proven to be correct using this(it is not just their opinion..it can be proven to be right):

    It is assumed that the author of any non-feminist book is implying, without explicitly stating it, that they know that women have issues but s/he is not addressing them in his/her book. For example, a math author knows that feminist issues exists but his book is speaking about 1+2=3… Hence. He is implying that the book will not be for broke and abused women (at least not directly for them). So what Sandburg did was explicitly state that which other non-feminist authors have only implied. You get what am saying? If I was to tell the homeless man, “sir. I know that you are hungry but I have nothing to give you” I cannot be seen as a philanthropist. And all I have done is state that which other people have implied by merely walking right past him. You dig?

    now you can argue that looking out for these career driven professional women is feminist. but that which is feminist should be able to stand as such on its own. meaning that if every feminist author was to see that as sufficient enough to be called feminist–and all their books were about that… then is addressing these women enough to uphold what we consider to be feminism? am afraid not.

  11. What’s really irritating is how, once again, all women are framed as mothers or caring for children. Women’s issues≠”mother’s issues”, and as a single, childfree woman it’s annoying as hell.
    So Sandburg wrote a book for upper middle class “white” women…so what? Does every book have to address every woman’s experience everywhere on Earth? Why aren’t more books addressing my experience as an unmarried, childfree athiest woman who enjoys video games and works in the public sector? Where’s my narratives? Right.
    And while capitalism is far from perfect, Bell Hooks sounds like the kind of collective farmer who has no idea what to practically replace it with. I’m hoping we establish some kind of Nordic system here someday; of couse that won’t be destructive enough for Hooks.

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