Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has been described as “something of a feminist call-to-arms” and “sort of a feminist manifesto.” Both of those descriptions, the first taken from NPR, the second from the book itself, should, I think, inspire a certain level of unease: Ideally, something is either a feminist call-to-arms/a feminist manifesto, or it is not. Similarly, one is either a feminist who fundamentally believes that women and men are equal in ability, deserve equivalent pay for comparable work, and should live in a society where that is an accepted norm, or one is not.
In a Morning Edition segment on NPR, the book was broken down along two major lines of argument, the first being how society and feminism have changed across decades and waves, the second being how society views women and how that affects the way women view themselves. I would argue that these are really one and the same argument, that it’s impossible to talk about feminism without talking about how we, women, feel and speak about ourselves, and that it’s impossible to talk about those feelings and that speech without discussing the societal expectations that act on them.
Lean In tries to interact with the phenomena supported in countless studies (several of which Sandberg cites in the book) and seen in countless environments across the country, from boardrooms to sandboxes. Success and likability are positively correlated for me, but not so for most women. While men are expected and allowed to be assertive, women enacting the same behavior are bossy or, worse, a bitch. We see it in presidential primaries (Hilary Clinton’s entire primary campaign in 2008 was a study in how female assertiveness can turn off the American people), we see it in movies (Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty, a bitch?), and we see it in elementary school playgrounds (little boys are rarely, if ever, told they are being “too bossy,” to my knowledge.)
Though Sandberg identifies this complicated double standard as a problem, she never really grapples with it. We get contradicting advice: to be competent, to be nice, to be aggressive, to be “appropriately female” (whatever that means), to fake niceness at all costs, to be authentic … the list of contradictions goes on. As Double X’s Amanda Hess points out, Sandberg seems to be saying that “women don’t just need to lean in, they need to carefully calibrate the angle of their approach to suit every possible scenario.” Lean In, read from that angle, seems like it should be called How to Walk the Corporate Tightrope With a Laptop in One Hand and A Child in the Other, or something otherwise less-catchy.
Lean In also poses problems because no one is quite sure where to put it. The book isn’t generically pure: It’s not, precisely, a memoir, nor is it, really, a self-help book. Sometimes, it talks the talk of ideology, but sometimes, it walks the walk of practical advice. It’s confusing, and that would be all well and good, except books like this, books written by women about women, aren’t allowed to be confusing. We expect, nay, demand, more.
White men may have the luxury of writing to write, but women, minorities, and LGBTQ* individuals are not allowed to do so, because women, minorities, and LGBTQ are always speaking for all other women and minorities, everyone knows that. And that viewpoint is problematic. That viewpoint is, in this case, sexist. That viewpoint assumes that because Sandberg is female, her book and her experiences should be applicable and relatable to all women. We do not assume that of Mark Zuckerberg, or any other man in a position like Sandberg’s. If a man wrote a book like Lean In, which was part self-help, part memoir, and entirely filled with contradictions, he’d get called on the contradictions, or lauded for his commitment, or simply told that while he was great at whatever field he was in, he just wasn’t the most coherent writer. For Sandberg, however, her femaleness makes her a flagship. She must represent all women because she is one woman. She must contain multitudes. And she doesn’t, so we (that same liberal elite) get angry and resort to our blogs and our op-eds to comment on the lack of universal representation.
So yes, Lean In is hugely problematic. As a roadmap, it is almost useless, as it presents a million rules that are made to be broken. It is coated in privilege. Could Sandberg have achieved half of what she did if she was not white, if she was poor, if she was gay, if she wasn’t as well educated? Probably not. But the book is about Sheryl Sandberg and Sheryl Sandberg’s experience, and she is white, she is straight, she isn’t poor, and she is well-educated. She is also talented, intelligent and lucky, which are qualities the rest of us may also not possess (at least in the same proportions).
Many critiques call her on her tacit acceptance and lack of acknowledgement of those institutional and structural privileges, as they well should. However, those critiques still fall into that problematic category of assuming that whenever a woman, a person of color, an LGBTQ individual, or anyone else from a historically marginalized and oppressed group steps up to the mic, they are speaking for everyone else within that group. We need to at least attempt to separate individuals (even if they aren’t white men) from institutions. To, sometimes, take people’s words simply for what they are: reflections of a single truth that is entirely specific to one individual’s experience living in their skin in their time.
If we take Lean In with a grain of salt for every privilege, if we accept that Sandberg’s trajectory is entirely unattainable to many, male or female, in the United States and around the world, if we think critically about what it means that she isn’t comfortable with having the nametag that reads “feminist” stuck to her chest, and if we can appreciate that the contradictions inherent for women in the workplace are a result of massive structural forces, and that she isn’t trying to change those forces, merely to work around them, then, maybe, we can cut Sandberg a bit of break. Sheryl Sandberg is writing about her experience being Sheryl Sandberg. To me, Lean In was neither less nor more than that. And that’s OK.
Have you read Lean In? Did you find Sandberg’s arguments inspiring, or contradictory? Will you refuse to read her privileged memoir-manifesto? Share in the comments!
Written by Samantha Jaffe
*all gender and sexual identities recognized