Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” My initial impression of the book was mixed. On one hand, I thought Sandberg offered some practical advice, such as choosing a partner that will be an equal when it comes to household responsibilities. On the other hand, her advice hardly struck me as something new and revolutionary, and it also felt limited in scope since it was strictly applied to a corporate environment. I concluded that it may be a useful book for some women, but that we needed more voices to enter the conversation about women in the workforce.
Though it has been months since the book’s publication, Sandberg has remained in the spotlight ever since. Most recently, she visited Howard University to launch her initiative of creating lean in circles at college campuses, a notable choice considering the book has been criticized for ignoring the struggles women of color face. However, considering the lack of nuance students in the audience perceived, this token gesture may not be enough to convince critics that Sandberg’s message is in all women’s best interest.
bell hooks’ recent review of “Lean In” for The Feministwire helps put a finger on the unease feminists have felt regarding the book’s message. I found it particularly useful in identifying why I felt uncomfortable with Sandberg’s book being considered the sole voice lending advice to women in the workplace. hooks calls Sandberg’s position “faux feminism” since it is a message that is palatable to those who wield power in the current social order – wealthy white men – wrapped in a seemingly feminist package. hooks finds Sandberg’s approach at odds with feminist goals:
“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.”
Rather than encouraging a transformation of the workplace, “Lean In” encourages women to further meld into an environment that has disadvantaged them from its inception. Furthermore, the book ignores the reality that race and class intersect with female identity to further disadvantage women of color and of lower socio-economic status. hooks explains that this is the reason “Lean In,” unlike the vast majority of feminist texts, found mainstream success rather than being delegated to academic circles: the message felt safe to corporate elites. Instead of inciting change, the book was filled with advice for becoming successful within the status quo.
Supplementing the idea that “Lean In’ became popular since it presented an acceptable message for corporate elites, Susan Faludi writes at The Baffler that Sandberg conveniently ignores any structural changes her own company, Facebook, could make to empower women, despite the fact that the social network’s most active users are women. Similarly, Sandberg offers corporations the chance to become partners in support of “Lean In” without scrutinizing their track records when it comes to the treatment of women in the workplace. The inclusion of Walmart as a corporate partner is indeed ironic considering the company has spent years dodging class action lawsuits due to gender discrimination. Faludi finds that the organization does not require their partner organizations to make any commitments when it comes to creating a fair and diverse workplace, which is problematic since simply talking about equality will not achieve equality.
“Lean In” skirts the topic of privilege and fails to call for change beyond the personal level. Encouraging people to believe in themselves and pursue their goals can be motivational advice. But telling people that the only reason they have not been able achieve their goals is because they are not trying hard enough is turning a blind eye to the external issues that women and people of color still face.
How do you feel about “Lean In’s” message? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Sully Moreno