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Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ campaign holds little for most women

Melissa Gira Grant is a contributing editor at Jacobin, and has written about sex and politics for the Nation, the Atlantic, and Dissent.

She had it all — a husband, children, a beautiful home, a seat on the board of a billion-dollar company, a nine-figure net worth of her own. But there was one thing Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have.

“I always thought I would run a social movement,” Sandberg said in the PBS/AOL documentary series “Makers.” So to launch her first book, “Lean In” — the subject of a front-page story in Friday’s New York Times — Sandberg is calling on women to contribute unpaid time to her public relations campaign by joining “Lean In Circles.” In small groups reminiscent of feminism’s pre-corporate days, they’ll gather after work to share success stories, view webinars and learn how they can rise to the top of their careers without forsaking “self-fulfillment” — Sandberg-speak for marriage and childbearing. Sandberg has set a rigorous schedule for each group – “three minutes for personal updates” at each monthly meeting, followed by 90 minutes of instruction – to be supported by videos and inspirational quotes on her “Lean In Foundation” website. Buy the book, lean in, and share – or click it.

As others have pointed out, this is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line. The “movement” Sandberg seeks to lead with Lean In resembles a social movement only so far as it supports the growth of her brand as leader.

There’s nothing wrong with a savvy marketing campaign that recruits an audience to evangelize for you by asking them to share their own stories. It’s the same practice that Facebook, which Sandberg is credited with bringing to profitability, is built on. And this movement is on trend with how (far too) much social change is now marketed: something to accumulate, to Instagram, to be praised, no matter how well it succeeds. The personal is the political is now the post-post-feminist social movement: “Just ‘Like’ here to be added to our list,” says the Lean In Facebook group, naturally.

I still believe, though, that women are attracted to feminist ideals beyond driving vanity projects. We don’t find feminism only when we somehow win the leisure time to develop a political analysis; we do it because we can’t afford not to. But when Sandberg asks the women in her movement to share only “positive” stories (as the Lean In Circle materials stipulate), where women always overcome the odds through their individual mettle, when do women get a chance to identify the obstacles still in front of them, those structural barriers that do not melt before positive self-regard? Without naming that which is still not won, what is this movement actually struggling for? To make change, or to be celebrated as women who adopt the mantle of “changemaker” in Sandberg’s world?

It seems that the consciousness raised and solutions offered in Lean In Circles will be isolated to actions individual women can take to support their own ambitions and desires, rather than wondering about the ambitions and desires of, say, the women who keep house for the women spending their time “leaning in.” There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women.

After all, who are the women in Sandberg’s world? An anecdote from Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk revealed her surprise when the men who invited her to make a pitch in their boardroom didn’t know where to find the women’s bathroom. If she asked one of the people who vacuum the boardroom, there’s a fair chance they would know: According to a recent report, 33 percent of janitorial jobs in Silicon Valley are held by women.

Closer to home, Sandberg employs a staff to help keep house, raise her children and throw her women’s leadership dinners. Unfortunately, in California, where Sandberg resides, her staff have no guaranteed employment protections as domestic workers. It’s not for lack of leadership: Nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic workers, 93 percent of whom are women, lobbied for a California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2012. It passed the state legislature, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it.

Where are women like the domestic workers in Sandberg’s vision of leadership, which privileges women leading at the top, from the corner office, taking the head of the table? And what about the success of women who have lost their jobs, or who can’t find work? As of a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 7.3 percent of all women older than 20 are unemployed, and that percentage almost doubles among black women.

Sandberg’s understanding of leadership so perfectly internalizes the power structures of institutions created and dominated by men that it cannot conceive of women’s leadership outside of those narrow spaces. Does this also explain why, for Sandberg, the biggest threat to our ability to occupy a position of leadership is a woman’s desire to have a child? This is what men have been telling us for years.

Sandberg may miss so many women in her movement simply because her brand of gender equity is almost entirely privatized, doled out from employer to employee. Women, she advises, will find their way to the top through telling employers upfront about their childbearing plans, through learning how to negotiate pay raises (say “we” instead of “I,” Sandberg cautions, though the collective here is the corporation), through comportment exercises, as taught through Lean In’s web videos.

Any movement leader needs a compelling vision, not just an outsize platform. For Sandberg, that’s in making “work-life balance” an issue for all people, not just women. But Sandberg’s recipe for balance is found between the demands of a woman’s employer and the demands of her children. Where are women’s own desires in this equation?

Where, in Sandberg’s feminism, are the women who do not want children, or who can’t have them? Women who do not want to get married, or women who legally are not allowed to marry? Where are the women whose care-taking duties include, in addition to their children, elderly parents, close friends and extended families? If all these women do exist within the frame of the “Lean In” movement, Sandberg gives them as little airtime, and therefore value, as the men who seek to exclude them from their power base. Her movement, insofar as there is one, holds little for the majority of women.

But this is, for women, no great tragedy, and certainly no greater exclusion than we — child-free, unmarried, lesbian or bisexual, transgender, or working in the many thousands of jobs outside the halls of global capital’s leadership — already face. We know what Sandberg cannot understand: Women and our social movements do not need a better boss but a more powerful base, from which we can lead on our own terms.

 
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