Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, has been heralded by many as a “feminist manifesto” that accurately addresses the issues facing modern women at home and in the workforce. Even in the libertarian community, there has been a type of female circle jerk surrounding Lean In. In her book, Sandberg makes important observations about the challenges facing today’s women. We still get paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, and that’s if you’re a white woman. Corporate success is contingent upon a woman not speaking out but fitting in. Women are considered “bitches” when they get aggressive, whereas men are considered ambitious when they exhibit the same trait.
However, despite the promotion the book has received as a “feminist manifesto,” its message is only applicable to a certain audience and a certain type of woman. While the marketing campaign of the book emphasized that the book was for all women, in a day and age where corporate black women are getting fired and suspended from work for wearing their own hair and dress, this promise, in the form of a bestseller written by a white woman, rings hollow.
While Sandberg’s book covers a variety of topics, as bell hooks points out, she refuses to challenge issues within the framework of a patriarchal, racist, and classist crony capitalist system that is built off the bodies of women and people of color. So how revolutionary can this “feminist manifesto” really be? The chapter entitled “Working Together Toward Equality” shows as much. While it is essential to work with other individuals regardless of sex and gender, we must do so under a framework of challenging a system of patriarchy and abuse. By asking women to “sit at the table” and “lean in,” Sandberg is asking women to participate in a system created and dominated by men. Instead of encouraging women to formulate a new paradigm, she argues that women should submit to the rules of this male-oriented corporate structure.
She also shows this in the opening pages. Sandberg acknowledges that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet” yet stresses that “each subsequent chapter focuses on an adjustment or difference that we can make ourselves.” Although many of the problems facing modern women are caused by discrimination, sexism, and bad public policy, Lean In disregards the external barriers women face and emphasizes individual solutions to individual advancement. Instead of using her platform as a successful CEO to make demands of the corporate workplace, Sandberg refuses to commit to restructuring a failed social system.
Equally as important, Sandberg’s particular brand of feminism and life experiences are not true for everyone. As important as it is to “lean in,” it’s not always as simple or as easy as that for everyone. It is also essential, in bell hooks words, “to step out, be critical, question, and discuss across spaces of perceived differences” and build alternatives to these patriarchal, racist and sexist structures, corporate and otherwise.
Similarly to 20th century women’s suffrage and liberation movements, middle-to-upper class educated white women have driven much of the recent conversation regarding the “Lean In” movement. Questions concerning immigrant women, women of color, and women of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are left unanswered. Sandberg’s Lean In movement completely overlooks the struggles facing these demographics, who have very few people and very little financially to “lean on.” Although Sandberg makes strong demands of individual women, for most minorities, the problem isn’t a lack of entrepreneurial appetite or a go-getter mentality. It’s a lack of sufficient financial and social capital resources to “lean on.” Here, she leaves out a key demographic.
Sandberg doesn’t address many issues that women face on a day to day basis, such as wealth autonomy (for a woman who is now a billionaire you think this would be an important issue), western cultural imperialism, supremacy, patriarchy, managing money on a day to day basis, etc. By doing this, she’s excluding a lot of women who do not fit into the mold of what an acceptable working woman means, including those who have mental health issues, those who have been incarcerated, poor women, women of color, those who are not able bodied and those who identify as something other than straight.
This book, while necessary for some, is not applicable to many women across the racial and socioeconomic stratum. Although Sandberg declares that her book is for all women, she refuses to discuss key issues that women face in the workplace, as well as the wealth and whiteness she comes from. This book is clearly meant for a white, straight and middle upper to upper class audience. While those individuals may benefit from her message, it’s equally important to remember and include those who are struggling in different ways in the workplace and in our patriarchal society.
If you choose to read Lean In, remember that Sandberg’s standpoint and story isn’t the same as everyone else’s. You may not be able to take everything away from her book, and that’s okay. Take what you can and learn what you can and use that. It’s okay to be different, and it’s okay to not have the same experiences as everyone else, and it’s okay to question patriarchy, and society and class and gender and mental health assumptions and it’s okay to call out racism and be fucking angry about it, it’s okay if she doesn’t speak to your particular struggle in the workplace or in society, because there’s someone who does, who can help you and who wants to talk to you and get to know you and help you in the way that you need it. Remember to digest Lean In and Sandberg’s particular brand of “feminism” through that lens. Learn what you can from her book and don’t worry about the rest.