Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: a new Feminist Path?

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: A New Feminist Path?

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury, Ph.D

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I started Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in with a negative bias.  I had heard about it in the media, where it was frequently hailed as a new feminist manifesto.  Slightly incredulous, I wondered: how could a businessperson (Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer), no matter how smart or successful, be qualified to give advice, lessons or for that matter craft a theory with something to contribute to feminism?   That requires a thinker, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, in other words an observer and analyst of social mores, not someone immersed in the business of making money.

Sandberg’s own coquettishness about the book’s identity did not help her case, but rather added to the confusion:

“this book is not a memoir, although I have included stories about my life.  It is not a self-help, although I truly hope it helps.  It is not a book about career management, although I offer advice in that area.  It is not a feminist manifesto-okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto…”

Denial being just a crafty form of affirmation, the book’s genre is basically stated in this paragraph’s literary game of hide-and-seek: it is an ambitious project that wants to be all of that.  But by blurring the lines between genres, we are basically getting all of them together, which is another way of getting neither… Its obvious self-help and career management aspects dilute the feminist manifesto side of it.

Collusion between politics and philosophy is frequent throughout history, but not of commerce and philosophy.  They are the antithesis of one another.  Blame it on my elitism, but I do not know of many thinkers who were also tradesmen… And her lessons, precisely because she is so earnest, so intent in presenting herself as humble and down-to-earth (qualities that are often appealing in self-help or career advice books, and valued in memoirs), are at times pedestrian, trivial, sketchy. Her book is a case study for a Harvard Business School M.B.A student turned into a defense and illustration of feminism in the 21st century .  She is selling the cause of feminism.

At the same time, the Lean In phenomenon attests to tectonic shifts in our society, and most notably to the glaring disappearance of the figure of the public intellectual and the simultaneous emergence of a newly found legitimacy for businesspeople to speak up on societal changes.  It is the celebrity factor. Obsolete are the likes of Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan-philosophers and journalists-whose job was to remain above the fray.  Globalization took down frontiers between nations.  Similarly, and perhaps courtesy of the Internet with the subsequent dilution of knowledge it brought with it, we must now live with a new porosity between fields traditionally separate.  It is no coincidence Sandberg comes from Facebook, with its culture of self-proclaimed stardom.

Yet, despite the cause of business somehow obscuring the cause of philosophy, I found several aspects of Sandberg’s book instructive, edifying and even illuminating.

In a nutshell, Sandberg believes (I agree with her) women are often their worst enemies.   I disagree though with a frequent critique taxing her of “having it all easy” thanks to perfect studies, a perfect mentor (Larry Summers), a perfect husband.  She wasn’t always rich and famous.  She had to work hard for her gains, and must be applauded for that.

So here are a few essential observations she makes women should remind themselves when building a career:

-the impostor syndrom: recent studies have demonstrated that women with high academic degrees often feel plagued by self-doubt: “Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are-impostors with limited skills or abilities.”  Given the same assignment than men, women will systematically underestimate themselves.

– negative stereotypes about women in the workplace as illustrated by the Heidi and Howard experiment: a 2003 study shows how given identical data, perceptions will differ vastly if it’s a man (Howard) or a woman (Heidi): “when a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women.  When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”  These negative impressions end up holding a woman back because she doesn’t conform to social stereotypes of male and female.

-the tiara syndrom: women will be more reluctant than men to ask for a raise or apply for a promotion, because they tend to believe that their good work will be naturally rewarded, and “a tiara will be placed on their heads”.  Sandberg argues we must fend for ourselves rather than wait for an accolade.

-Finally, Sandberg’s device is : “done is better than perfect”.  A working woman who wants to have a meaningful career, a nice house, a caring husband, freshly made food for her family, perfectly organized linen closets, and impeccable children, is doomed to fail, and often-studies show-drops out of the workforce.  Instead, we should aim for “good enough”, rather than perfection.

These crucial points are part of the first half of the book (aside from the fourth point appearing towards the end), which brings in more theoretical aspects than the rest.  The second half unfortunately slips often into cliché talk.  For instance, Sandberg explains how Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, believes learning to withstand criticism is a necessity for women, and advices them “to let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us”.  Sandberg reinforces this view by adding in rather unexciting fashion: “allowing myself to feel upset, even really upset, and then move on-that’s something I can do.”

Really? Is this all we are learning from this?

At times, we feel as in a therapy session, as Sandberg advocates for instance a new-agey-meets third-wave-feminism-sort-of-vision: she says for instance it should become okay for women to show their emotions, to cry in the workplace.  She believes this shows their compassion and sensitivity, and argues those will be the qualities of future leaders. She calls for a naturalism of sorts, praising authenticity and idiosyncracies.

Cliches also abound in sections that read more as plain, run-of-the mill business advice: “take risks, it often pays off”, or “grab opportunities when you see them”.

Others are mere life-coaching (which is our modern name for good old-fashioned wisdom of nations): “when looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys.  But do not marry them. (…) Find someone who is an equal partner.”

At times, she is so well-meaning and sympathetic to fellow women, it becomes slightly condescending, and falsely modest: “Sometimes high-potential women have a difficult time asking for help because they don’t want to appear stumped.  Being unsure how to proceed is the most natural feeling in the world.  I feel that way all the time.”

But beyond frequent redundancy and some talk that is often more common sense for the modern world than a new feminist manifesto, my final criticism is we run the risk of injecting gender in every discussion, or reduce everything to an issue of minority.  Bias and discrimination will be detected everywhere.

It is a defining American trait to create communities and sub-communities (Tocqueville observed this more than two hundred years ago) as a counterpoint to its intimidating size but also to its fierce economic individualism, and the subsequent loosening of social and family ties.  But an individual is not only the product of an ethnic or sociological entity, it is also a universal transcending differences in gender, color or race.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge women are different from men, if only because of an important biological difference:  they have the ability to give birth and ensure human reproduction.  So women in the 21st century still face the Sisyphean task of caring for their children and trying to have a meaningful career.

The dream of a fifty-fifty split between men and women in the workplace is a virtuous and unattainable ideal- Sandberg argues eventually men and women should be equally divided at home and in the workplace-but perhaps the seamless interchangeability of roles between genders is a mere utopian (even tedious) fantasy.

Despite a complacent rhetoric at times, Sheryl Sandberg’s book sheds a fresh and surprisingly invigorating light on women in the workplace who should be grateful someone with first-hand experience is voicing legitimate concerns.

The answers should certainly come from women themselves who need to internalize the feminist revolution in deeper ways, but we should also start asking for better social policies and government-based institutions allowing women to better dovetail family and work, rather than imposed by an artificial and imposed equality with its desire to even out gender differences.

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