Why Lean In is Worth Reading and Talking About

I recently finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which received much attention in the media up to its release, and has inspired a good deal of coverage of topics related to women and work in the past week or so. I actually preordered a Kindle copy so that I would be able to read it immediately upon its release last Monday (which is something I’ve never actually done before). I have to admit, because of the amount of attention it is getting, and my own enthusiasm, I was actually expecting to be totally let down by the book. I even thought that there was a good chance that I would be angered by it. But I wasn’t. I liked it, felt that it was an important addition to the conversation (or lack of conversation) on this topic, and it felt genuine and balanced. The book is often based in and inspired by her personal experiences, but there is a strong dose of research and statistics supporting her assertions. Not for nothing, but Gloria Steinem advised her while she was writing. So that deserves some credit.

Sandberg’s approach is careful not to go too far to advance any certain agenda of forcing women to do certain things with their careers, personal lives, or both. Many news stories have taken up the question of whether Sandberg is telling women to lean in too much to their careers, with an accusatory implication that she is trying to run others’ lives without acknowledging her privilege. I’m afraid that everyone involved in those stories might not have read the book or talked to Sandberg. She consistently repeats the message that every path is different, that no two relationships, careers, or lives are the same, nor should women be compared to each other or made to feel guilty or demeaned, especially by other women.

Sandberg advocates for change at the individual level; she acknowledges that the system and the individual pose a chicken and egg conundrum (women will fix things when we become leaders…but how are we supposed to create a critical mass of women leaders without things being fixed?) and chooses to push individuals to create change in their own lives. I take no issue with this stance, as it recognizes that we need to do both, that we can’t do one without the other, and that we definitely can’t do nothing.

What is most interesting about the discord over this book, and in general, over pushing for equity in our careers and in our homes between partners, is that the very systemic and social factors that drive the inequity are those which drive the negative feedback. This is hardly surprising for anyone who has studied privilege and oppression or critical feminist or race theory. Of course the system responds to dialogue that challenges the status quo by defending the status quo. Duh. That’s how the system works to keep oppressing. What can be confusing is that women are often the most vocal critics of suggestions like the ones Sandberg makes.

Again, this is not altogether surprising to those who have spent much time thinking about privilege and oppression. It’s a little thing called internalized oppression, and it’s one of the reasons that systems of privilege and oppression work so well. The oppressed are socialized to believe the same messages as the privileged. When a woman gets upset at another woman for dismantling the status quo, it’s because dismantling the status quo shakes things up for everyone, regardless of which side of the oppression you are on. So when women cry out against what Sandberg is saying, its incredibly ironic and also entrenched in the oppressive system. Firstly, they are trying to take down another woman, minimizing her credibility, attacking her success, and ostracizing her from the community of women. Secondly, they are coming from a place in which their own experiences are socialized to normalize the status quo of male hegemonic power that Sandberg is calling out. This is so harmful because mostly, people will say “Well these other women seem to see a problem with this, so they are probably right–now I can return to my comfort zone”. Everyone, of course, has the right to make whatever choices they like; the problem with that is that what we “like” is what we are socialized to like, want, feel, and do.

There is no essential part of any of us that indicates “I’m going to become a corporate lawyer” or “I’m going to become a Vice President of a university” or “I’m going to stay at home with my two kids”. There is also no biologically essential part that says “I can/can’t speak up in this meeting” or “I can/can’t seek a promotion”. This is not in our DNA. It’s biological essentialism and it just doesn’t hold up, because those messages are all socially constructed throughout our lives. We are a complete product of our environments with regard to social behavior. There are some things that are biologically true: women can give birth and men can’t; women can nurse a baby, which has some real health benefits. But we’re really past the point where that should be limiting women to only serving those roles. The reality is that these messages do real harm to women, limiting their earning power, limiting their sense of social freedom and fulfillment, leaving them in sometimes impossible situations if they get divorced or leave a partner, and consistently perpetuating a status quo in which women are less than–quantitatively less than in terms of salary and representation in leadership positions–than men.

What I truly appreciate about Sandberg is that she is targeting a mainstream audience. And not only does she want to do so in a theoretical sense with what she has written, but she has also worked to establish an accessible and intentional system of practice in everyday life through the Lean In Circles she promotes on leanin.org. She’s is not just talking the talk, she is walking the walk, and hoping to help others do the same. Sandberg is not writing for those who already have a strong understanding of feminist theory or the reasons women are held back in careers; but if you do understand and are passionate about this topic, it’s worth listening in and raising your voice up. Change is made when radical ideas become less radical and start to create the new normal.