Monday, November 4, 2013

Does lean in have anything to offer those we lean on?

In an article in the New York Times Style Section, ‘Page by Page, Men Are Stepping Into the Circle’, Hannah Seligson highlights the degree to which men in corporate America have embraced Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and accompanying ‘movement’.

You have to ponder how transformative a movement Lean In can be when it has been so readily embraced by men – and not just any old men but men at the top of the corporate chain - let alone corporate America. Corporations can choose to ‘partner’ with Lean In, and ironically (or tellingly) the organization does not discriminate against companies whose corporate record on women is less than stellar.

Almost in passing Seligson makes the following observation

“some men say they are drawn into the book not because of gender or work-life balance issues, but because it is a playbook on how to get ahead".

I find this both fascinating and a little disturbing. Should Lean In be shelved under self-help rather than feminism? And if it is so unthreatening to not only men but also corporate America, whose mission is profit at any cost rather than equality, what should feminists make of it?

In dressing up feminism in a corporate suit, does Sandberg's 'movement' make corporate America more feminist or has it instead made feminism more corporate? Have the aims of feminism effectively been co-opted by Lean In, its goals so compatible with corporate interests that rather than serving women, it represents feminism in the service of corporations and capitalism itself?

Does Lean In have anything at all to offer the low paid female workers – predominantly women of color and immigrants - who privileged women(and men) Lean On so that they can get ahead? Just how much more leaning in can women do who are often working multiple jobs and still living at or below the poverty line?

Even on her own terms, within the world of corporate America, does Sandberg do anything to challenge patriarchal notions of leadership? Part of her spiel at public events is to ask women “How many of you were called bossy growing up?” Predictably, many women will raise their hands. And those who do are told to celebrate this trait, because after all it is the bossy among us who are born to be leaders.

For me, this exercise demonstrates the failure of Lean In to challenge patriarchy, perpetuating the myth that traits associated with traditional masculinity are the same ones that we should be looking for in leaders. What if Lean In questioned this narrative, promoting a different vision of what makes a good leader, recognizing that the most effective leaders are not the classic ‘bossy’ kids but instead the cooperative and collaborative child who knows how to bring out the best in those around them.

Sandberg’s limited vision for feminism is not necessarily harmful; it might even see more women being promoted into positions that should always have been theirs. And that is undeniably a good thing. But the attention her book, and ‘movement’ have achieved are not because what she has to say is transformative or radical, but because it is the easiest to digest version of feminism, demanding very little of men as a class and doing nothing to address the interests of women outside those who are already the most privileged among us.

By selling feminism as a win-win for both men and women, all the while virtually ignoring issues of class and race, Sandberg underplays (or ignores) the reality that those who benefit from privilege do not give up that privilege in meaningful ways without a fight. Men benefit, as a class and individually, from patriarchy and while dismantling patriarchy absolutely benefits men and women, actual gender equality will mean that men have to give up much in order for women to gain.

This less feel good reality is why feminist gains are met every step of the way with backlash, and why Lean In’s feel good circles (positive stories only please) are no substitute for sustained political action.

It is trade unions and organized political movements that will bring about the sort of structural reforms that will benefit women as a class, rather than simply a very privileged class of women.

Basics like paid parental leave, sick leave, access to health care, quality affordable child care, reforms to immigration policy, and a living wage are but some of the issues that feminists seeking to use their privilege for more than their own gain will organize around. 

Is it a good thing that the most prominent face of feminism - or at least the one that has been embraced by the mainstream western press - is one that presents feminism as being so unthreatening, so completely in sync with the values of corporate America, that has CEOs falling over themselves to be part of the Lean In brand? 

At the end of the day, I am not interested in a strand of feminism that has nothing to say to women outside a very small and privileged orbit. And it is not that I think that the issues facing women in the corporate world are not worthy of feminist interest or action, but when this is the beginning and end of your feminism then it is not something I can identify with.