Image: Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Time’s March 2013 issue. Image Source.
“Together women can.”
Those three words make up the core call to action for Lean In, a campaign founded by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, and billionaire, Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s quest to join forces and ‘lean in’ together across the corporate world has inevitably appealed to masses of professional women over the last few years and really, why wouldn’t it? Open up a browser and the online landscape is awash with a smorgasbord of all things empowerment and sisterhood. Whether voluntary or not, with every ‘like’ and re-tweet we continuously subscribe to the shallow, self-affirming, high-five boom of hashtags and memes offering little more than instantaneous self-empowerment without ever delving into real or systemic change initiatives.
The trouble with contemporary corporate feminism, and campaigns like Lean In and its subsequent dialogue, is that it merely flaunts a poorly constructed idea of individualist feminist discourse, and in Sandberg’s case, what seems to be a personal act of embarrassing defiance in the face of her clear advantage as a woman identifying as cis-gendered, rich, educated and white.
Sanderg has invested heavily in her ‘inspirational’ empire, deftly intertwining the building of her own personal brand as a pseudo Tony Robbins-esque figure of corporate success. Her campaign Lean In is soaked up by hundreds of thousands of frustrated women across the globe – namely, women tired of the very real barriers typically found in a corporate landscape that continues to make seamless way for the striving and privileged white male. The problem is the factors she outlines in her ‘trailblazing’ ascent to corporate and fiscal domination.
Sandberg continuously references her neatly coined neologism the “ambition gap”, simultaneously challenging and accusing women of not aiming high enough – as if ‘belief’ were the primary obstacle for women in the workforce. Amidst the ridiculousness of such a conclusion, is the absence of any real feminist theoretical discourse, disavowing the continued fight of feminists against the capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal system that has obviously served the Harvard graduate quite well. Not only does Lean In’s campaigning ignore historical context, it also fails to pay homage to the longstanding fight that informed feminists have been battling long before Sandberg generously offered her trickle-down tactics from her billion-dollar viewpoint. Sandberg offers women the chance to bask in her own simplified version of post-feminism, and offers her status and money as proof that capitulation works wonders for those in the know.
In the face of last year’s Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn debacle, Sandberg seems to have led the charge in the denial of intersectionality in the development of the feminist movement, as if we naturally fall under just one universal binary. This categorisation serves her purpose to offer simplistic solutions to inherently grossly complex issues. “Stronger together” as Schumer noted in her video depicting a whitewash of Beyonce’s formation video, could nearly be a direct inheritance of Sandberg’s motto “Together women can”. It might be easy enough to tweet but the convenient deletion of historic and systemic oppression combined with the blindsiding of factors of race, class, physical disability and sexuality becomes in and of itself an impediment to real and lasting change – as if it’s simply a matter of mindset that will win the gender war.
Of course, with mass attention also comes sanctioned critique, and in this case a brutal backlash from feminists and social activists, including bell hooks who summed up that “Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged”. hooks argues that Sandberg fails to address what could possibly “motivate patriarchal white males in a corporate environment to change their belief system or the structures that support gender inequality”.
Acclaimed journalist Dawn Foster also criticised Sandberg’s initiative, so much so that she published her own book titled Lean Out (2015) which was marketed as a direct response to Lean In. Contrary to Sandberg’s, Foster’s book is packed with a robust collation of both data and historical and contemporary context to back her case. Foster argues that Sandberg “neatly tiptoes around governmental and corporate responsibilities to women, and how the US’s lack of paid maternity leave directly discriminates against working women”. Drawing on the notion of ‘choice’, ‘individual’ and ‘imperialist’ feminism, Foster infers that “the importance of ‘aspiration’ over equality both focuses on individual success, and in turn attributes failure to individuals, rather than a system designed to promote a few, transferring wealth to the ‘aspirational’ at the expense of many, many others”.
Despite the critique, Lean In’s campaign has continued to bubble along, making its way through college roadshows and an array of celebrity endorsements. Similarly, is that of the work of Emma Watson, whose intent might be nicely positioned, but whose sentiment is just as ill-considered. Instead of suggesting women lift their game as Sandberg so kindly does, Watson’s campaign HeForShe calls upon men to kindly please put their institutionalised misogyny aside and be a good sport in helping to achieve gender equality. The movement ignores the fracturing of feminist cause into a multi-layered, multi-causal fight, instead asking Rosie the Riveter to put down her fist and ask a man to do the work for us. If we can’t do it, surely men can. Sadly, HeForShe continues to gather media momentum – easy done though when the medium is a known, articulate, and highly privileged actress who happens to be pretty good at speeches. The narrative of HeForShe also shows remnants of damage control, leaving behind a trail of awkward interviews that clearly depict Watson having received the briefing on intersectional inclusiveness a little late in the game.
Lean In’s own response to its backlash is subtly evident on its website; a platform enthused with catchy slogans, tasteless stock imagery, and of course, branded merchandise, (yes, you can get your own Lean In sippy cup). The website also showcases what appears to be a strategic approach to advocating diversity in an impressive feat of smiling faces that convey what corporate inclusiveness might look like on a contemporary landing page.
Sandberg’s book Lean In (2013) – in all its commercial success – is anything but a feminist statement. Instead, the book and web-based movement serve as an inspirational manifesto for those bold and daring enough to demand their inherited seat at the boardroom table; reflecting an already outmoded how-to-guide of how one might impose visitation rights to a system typified by institutional, patriarchal resistance.
Sandberg’s core message – that women simply aren’t supporting each other enough, or aiming high enough – places the impetus, and the blame on us, as if the grievances experienced underneath the glass ceiling are nothing but self-inflicted wounds. As this continues to ripple out throughout the corporate and media spheres, it has become abundantly clear of a deeply fractious dialogue between the radical feminists, like hooks, who demand messy systemic change and those liberal feminists like Sandberg, or Watson, or Schumer who believe that by a pulling up of our unilateral lady socks, it’s only a matter of time before men move over and make way for those willing to ‘lean in’ and cooperate. The difference it seems is between those willing to fight to break through the glass ceiling or those happy to press their faces against it.
This article was originally published on www.udee.co