Guest post by Amy A.
Lately, a lot of people seem to be reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. My boss, my friends, and a whole lot of people on the internet are talking about it. I’m intrigued by almost any book that’s being used in the same sentence as the words “feminist manifesto,” so I grabbed a copy and decided to see what the buzz was about.
Much has already been written about Lean In. I haveincluded a selection of links at the end of this post which comment, both positively and negatively, on the book. If you’re interested in learning more about Lean In and the controversy that has grown around it, I hope that these can provide a starting place.
What I found in Sandberg’s book was both hopeful and troubling. Her basic premise is that a “truly equal world would be one in which women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes” (p. 7). This equitable division of responsibilities and power, she writes, would benefit everybody. Sandberg posits that women are held back by forces that are both internal and external. Women, she claims, are limited by forces in the world around them but also “hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands…we internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve” (p. 8). Lean In focuses largely on internal, rather than institutional obstacles to women’s success. “We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment,” she writes.
While many women do internalize the messages we are constantly bombarded with about our roles and limits in the world, I find Sandberg’s argument worrisome in that it fails to place enough emphasis on the systems of power that create and perpetuate these messages in the first place. Resisting this internalization isn’t as simple as being aware of it. We can understand the forces that shape our world, but we still have to live in it. External forces remain at play which systematically disadvantage women (and disadvantage some women more than others). Absolutely, women’s fear of raising their hands or seeming aggressive can be damaging to their careers, but why have many women been made to feel this way in the first place? And why have both men and women been conditioned to negatively judge women who do behave assertively in the workplace, as Sandberg points out (p. 41)? These are questions that Sandberg’s book fails to answer adequately. In a chapter in which she discusses negotiation tactics, Sandberg draws attention to a system of rewards in which women are routinely offered lower compensation than their male peers. While she acknowledges that this is inherently unfair, Sandberg focuses on providing tactics for women to work within the existing patriarchal rules and expectations of negotiation to secure a better deal, rather than working to dismantle or disrupt this system (p. 47-48). While an understanding of the existing negotiation framework may be very valuable for individual women, this advice helps to maintain rather than alter the status quo. I worry that by focusing on internal factors that hold women back, Sandberg places the responsibility solely on women to create change, and doesn’t focus strongly enough on the role men can play in perpetuating inequality.
I also think the book falls down in what it fails to say. There is limited or no mention of women of colour, aboriginal women, queer or trans women, or women of different abilities or socio-economic backgrounds—and how their experiences might be different from Sandberg’s. Although Sandberg herself can’t speak for these women’s experiences, her book fails to adequately recognize the ways in which some women may face additional challenges and oppression. Lean In tends to lump all women together, which silences the voices of those whose experiences may be radically different from Sandberg’s own. For an interesting take on the idea of shared female identity, check out Mia McKenzie’s blog post, “The Myth of Shared Female Experience and How It Perpetuates Inequality.”
I think Sandberg’s book is valuable in that, as a woman with enormous power and influence, she is raising awareness about gender inequality in the workplace and prompting heated discussion in this area. While I think it’s important to think critically about the book, its shortcomings don’t necessarily mean it should be dismissed outright. The book is well-researched and offers a great number of illustrative statistics and studies which help to shed light on gender inequality both in and out of the workplace. Sandberg draws attention to important workplace issues for women which warrant attention and discussion, such as the tendency for women to be penalized for behaviours that are valued in men. She points out that success and likeability are often negatively correlated for women, but not for men. And she encourages men to take on more responsibility in the home and to take on more active roles as partners (although here again heterosexual relationships are assumed to be the norm).
If you’re interested in Lean In or the issues that it raises, I would encourage you to do some further reading (see below). Sandberg has stated that one of her goals in writing the book is that issues of gender and the workplace be openly discussed; judging by the public reaction to Lean In, this certainly does seem to be taking place. I hope that the direction of these discussions will not be to blame women for holding themselves back, but to examine the systemic reasons women are being held back, and to inspire people of all genders to look for ways to break down these barriers.
Have you read the book? What did you think? Please feel free to share your ideas with us!