Can a Feminist Academic Lean In?
I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In on an airplane headed to Salt Lake City. I was on my honeymoon, five days after my wedding, still grappling with my exceedingly heteronormative existence and embarrassed to even say the word “honeymoon.” I like to think of myself as a political queer, hyper aware of the damaging norms of gender and sexual identity. I’m a women’s studies teacher, for heaven’s sake. I did not expect to be taught anything in this modern-woman’s watered down assessment of broken feminism. But something about my newly married state had me thinking about work and family life in a different way. I was intrigued by enthusiastic recommendations of the book from friends who work outside of academia. When I finally let myself investigate this book, instead of neatly categorizing and dismissing Sandberg’s argument, I was enthralled, nodding my head with her in agreement and making mental notes of all the people I would recommend this book to as soon as I left the plane – which basically amounted to EVERY female friend I have in academia.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer for Facebook, argues that the feminist movement, which she defines as a movement for women’s social, political, and economic equality, is stalled. Her argument is that the stall is as much the fault of women’s personal and internal choices about their lives as it is the fault of institutional sexism. Sandberg describes these two as going hand in hand – an issue that feminists have long described in the language of “internalized sexism” where women both downplay and sabotage their own ability/talent/work and the ability/talent/work of other women.
Sandberg covers a number of topics that I had heard of before and even discussed with my colleagues, but I had never before been able to see myself having the issues she discusses. I thought, “yes the imposter syndrome does exist, but I feel like an imposter because I really AM one.” Only reading about the experiences of so many other women and of Sandberg herself helped solidify for me that my personal feeling of inadequacy is PART OF A SYSTEMIC REALITY for most women. She covers other topics like the inability to negotiate a fair salary or ask for fair treatment for fear of losing the job (which you should be so thankful to have). She describes women basically torturing themselves with unattainable expectations, especially those who are parents, arguing that many women continue to uphold traditional gender roles by insisting on being the primary parent, doing housework a certain way, etc. (in my case this is refusing to ever let dishes sit in the sink unwashed).
Sandberg cites research about success of women in the classroom and in collaborative work environments, describing how women and girls wait to be called on and follow rules more often (which is why they succeed in school! Those behaviors are encouraged!) but do not speak out of turn or speak up for their ideas. They wait to be invited to the conversation. But they are also more often interrupted or shushed when they do speak – even women in senior positions.
I am so utterly torn about this book. On the one side, I found a feminist voice with whom I identify getting through to a mainstream audience. On the other side, I could hear bell hooks in my ear as I read. Feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression and exploitation everywhere; it cannot be only about allowing some women to move into more positions of privilege on the backs of other women. Sandberg’s brand of feminism is intended to motivate more women to enter top positions in corporations. In other words, to help some women gain parity with some men. She’s aware that her own case is extreme (basically all of her stories indicate that she is best friends with other CEOs and Oprah). But she does recognize class differences and need for widespread, systemic change. She advocates talking about gender, even as she acknowledges that talking about gender is a very difficult task. She does not mention race, except in an anecdote about an ally of a manager who helped her in a discriminatory situation, suggesting parallels between experience of gender and race in the workplace. While Sandberg does seem to recognize her own racial and economic privilege at times and is careful to not engage in generalizing all women’s experiences, the end goal is still for women to gain positions of power. Can I admit that I want women in those positions of power in multi-national corporations at the same time that I wish those corporations did not exist?
Bell hooks teaches about a feminism that goes beyond the model of equality between the sexes. Her “visionary feminism” is about disrupting ALL kinds of hierarchical power regimes. I tell my women’s studies students that this is my vision for feminism too. But as I read Lean In, I was unsettled by this approach that doesn’t match up to my usual leftist academic vision of the world. I will not jump ship on bell hooks. I will continue to envision a future that is radically just. But I think feminists in the academy also need to be willing to take some of Sheryl Sandberg’s advice (particularly my compatriots who are still in grad school, or just getting into the job market).
I found two of Sandberg’s key pieces of advice both helpful and controversial. First, Lean in. Women need to “lean in” to their work and not base their careers around preparing to have children and thus make concessions to their work. She argues that if women “lean in” during the tough years, they are making an investment (financial but also more than that) into the family’s future, even if it makes little financial sense at the time with child-care obligations/cost. Men need to “lean in” to family and home life and this means taking more responsibility. While I agree that too many women make their careers less of a priority than their partner’s, I am not convinced that working endless hours during the “tough years” actually yields any results, be they financial or personal. Second, Sit at the table. Don’t sit on the sidelines waiting to be included. Literally sit at the table where the work you are a part of takes place, and then make your voice heard by speaking up. Yes, women need to be more vocal, apologize less, and have more confidence in our own abilities and contributions. Yet, this piece of advice has a kind of “play by their rules” aspect that makes me think that “success” can only be achieved when you stop critiquing the system and learn to thrive within it.
So, women (and men) of academia, have you read this controversial and well-researched book? Would you take a look and tell me what you think? Because I want to have a continuing conversation about the issues it raised for me: what does success look like in my career and family life? Are women “settling” when they drop out of paid work life outside of the home? How do the experiences of same-gender-loving families fit with Sandberg’s analysis? Does “leaning in” make sense to you? Can we both engage in radical feminist visionary politics and actively pursue positions of power?
Natalie Williams is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Society at Drew University. Her work investigates the themes of shame, gender and sexuality, and the political regulation of morality. Natalie’s dissertation research focuses on the ethics of divorce in Christian doctrine and public policy. She serves as an adjunct instructor for Women’s Studies at Kean University in Union, NJ and an adjunct instructor for Religious Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.