I confess I did not come to Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN with the best intentions. I did not come to it in good faith. I had, in fact, been actively avoiding it since it came out a little over a year ago. When my best friend invited me (remotely) to participate in her “lean in” group, I declined. Because of all this, I don’t think it’s really fair for me to review it per se. So, this isn’t really a book review. This is more a manifesto in response to Sandberg’s manifesto.
I read LEAN IN as part of my intentional efforts to live the anti-oppressive beliefs I espouse. I am white, and I try to name and own that privilege as part of making spaces safe and comfortable for the people of color I interact with. And so it happened that in a rare Denver tornado warning I found myself in the basement of my building with a friend and colleague. She is black, and we were meeting specifically about anti-racist work we were doing in-house when the sirens blared. In the basement, we found ourselves cornered by a pair of white women co-workers. Conversation turned to LEAN IN, which the three of them had agreed to read together. The other two women were farther along in the book than my friend. They started chattering about it—about “tiara syndrome” and about “how women really are holding themselves back”—and I watched my friend’s face become a carefully blank slate. I know her well enough to know what signs to watch for when the unbearable whiteness of our work environment begins to really eat at her.
“I’ll read the book,” I said. The words just slipped out of my mouth. My friend cut me a sly look and smirked at the other two.
“Oh, you will?” asked one of the other two.
“Sure. When are y’all trying to have it read by?”
“June 1st,” said the other.
“No problem.” And it wasn’t. As far as I know, I’m the only one of the four of us to have actually finished it.
The security personnel waved us back upstairs. My friend and I hung back and let the other two women disappear into the crowd. We mounted the nine flights of stairs together. “I don’t really want to read that book,” she said. “And I don’t want to read it with them.”
“Yeah, how’d that happen?”
“I just got roped into it. At least if you’re there I won’t be the only one calling bullshit on it.”
Which is why I read it: to call bullshit on it. And that’s what this not-review-sort-of-manifesto-thing is.
1. Nothing Ever Trickles Down
Taking career advice from Sheryl Sandberg is about as useful and relevant to me as taking lifestyle advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. LEAN IN is GOOP for career ladies. Throughout, Sandberg admits that her book really is targeted at a specific group of highly ambitious and well-positioned women. She takes a strange position that by helping them specifically—those women who are, quite frankly, the most privileged sector of women—she will somehow spur a movement that helps all of womankind.
This is the same type of trickle-down activism that turned me away from the Occupy movement and marriage equality campaigns. I am not interested in political activism that leaves behind the worst-off. Focusing on the privileged members of a marginalized class has been historically used to divide and conquer, to bait and switch, and to give marginalized people just enough that the most well-connected and wealthy of them stop complaining. The complaints of the most marginalized members of that group are then easily discounted.
The women Sheryl Sandberg is writing for are women like her: the kind that can mobilize a multitude of privileges to get their foot in the door, period. These are women who are probably white, since having a black-sounding name on your resume is likely to keep you from getting hired in the first place. These are women who likely have no physical or mental disabilities, since they’ve typically excelled in school. These are women who are probably straight and partnered, since Sandberg more than once talks about how important it is for her readers’ husbands to lean in to the home and hearth as they themselves lean in to their careers. And they are probably cisgender since not once in 288 pages does Sandberg even acknowledge that trans* folks exist. More on that later, though.
My point here is that I’ve come to see movements that focus on the better-off segments of a fucked group as a waste of time. And this has been, historically speaking, the great weakness of white feminist work—it is another way whiteness supercedes everything else. It is white women (and middle class women, and able-bodied women, and cisgender women) telling everyone else to be patient, that once they’re in power things will be better. And that has never worked. The homeless, the forgotten, the women trapped in spirals of violence and poverty cannot afford to be patient. In the words of the black poet, Pat Parker:
SISTER!, your foot’s smaller
but it’s still on my neck.
There is an ethical breach there. How can Sandberg not see that?
2. Copying the moves of those in power keeps them in power
Largely Sandberg’s tactics consist of telling women (white, able-bodied, wealthy, cis women) to behave more like their male colleagues. Take up more space. Be more confident. Assert yourself. Negotiate harder.
She discusses why this is difficult, drawing on social psychological literature about power and social penalties women face when they do these things.* Her arguments position other women as the key to change here: if women would stop buying into these biases, if women would band together and cut each other breaks, then real change could happen. And maybe she’s a little right, but I think she’s mostly wrong here, too.
True change is not a simple shift in composition. It’s not a matter of more women in power at any cost and executing that power in any way. True change is a matter of fundamentally altering what we socially construct as power, as valuable, as worthy. What she’s preaching here isn’t change. It’s assimilation.
3. Anti-oppression work is intersectional or it is bullshit
That’s the heart of my objection to LEAN IN. Undergirding both Sandberg’s trickle-down strategies and her emphasis on assimilationist tactics is the idea that there exists a universal experience of womanhood. But the universal experience of womanhood is a myth.
Sandberg is pushing women to assimilate to a white masculinity. Women, generally, face social penalties when co-opting hegemonic masculinity, but women of color especially are at a disadvantage here. The social penalties faced by women of color are, across the board, far steeper than those faced by white women. And these tactics are not accessible to all women—embodying traditional masculinity is an especially fraught idea for trans women.
Adding to that is the fact that the women Sandberg is leaving behind with her book are the very ones who, due to structural and systemic oppression, are less likely to be employed at all much less shooting for the C suite. There was no way to translate Sandberg’s “sort of feminist manifesto” to the lives of single mothers, struggling women of color, trans women facing down daily violence, etc.
4. I exist; I resist
I can’t lean in. Truly, I can’t. At work, I am partially out. Thanks to our intersectional existence, there are many different axis along which a person can be out. It took me two years at my place of employment to out myself as having grown up poor, and that was still a pretty safe self-outing. I’m white, and poor white people are seen differently than poor black people. I’m highly educated—a person with a doctorate who grew up poor has “made good.” I’m upward bound. My class background is now little more of a footnote to my coworkers. Flavor text.
To a few at work I’ve outed myself as someone with anxiety and depression. This has happened mostly in the context of work I’ve done supporting students with disabilities, so there were reasons to disclose this, but still there have been raised eyebrows.
But I’m not out as queer. Or poly. Or, most importantly and most well-guarded, as trans*. For my sexuality and family structure, I’m in the glassest of glass closets. I don’t name it, but I don’t hide it, either. A few people know—when asked directly I give a direct answer. But most people at work don’t know. Still, it’s risky: I live in one of the 29 states where you can be fired for being queer.
But my gender. Oh, my hard-won prickly gender. I know I read as butch. And, oddly, sometimes at work someone will refer to me as ‘he’ with a bewildered look on their face as they stand staring at me in a dress. There is, I think, some way I’m telegraphing my transness. But not on purpose. I’ve resigned myself to getting continually, habitually misgendered at work. There is work me—a woman—and there is real me. Comfortable non-binary me. Protections for trans* people are thin on the ground. I would say that my place of employment is fairly queer-friendly, but being LGB friendly in no way means that the T is acceptable. I work in education. I work in central office administration, not directly with children, but the stigma and fear surrounding transgender people is still strong.
I can’t lean in. I can’t risk hustling and making enemies and quitting if it looks like I’m going nowhere. I’m the breadwinner of my family. And I’m on thin ice—queer, trans*, crazy. I have strikes against me. I’m an upwardly mobile, highly educated, conventionally intelligent and successful white person. And Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. I’m far more privileged than most people, and Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. It begs the question who stands to gain from her book. How can she foment revolution when she’s only speaking to a handful of people?
*I am, actually, deeply familiar with this literature. I spent a good amount of my grad school career steeped in these theories and did some research on them myself. To her credit, she gets them mostly right, but the limitations of that work and those theories are ultimately what drove me personally from the academy.