Dear Sheryl Sandberg,
On the surface your Lean In speech is completely uplifting. It sends the message that any woman can be a success with enough aggression, vigor, and hard work. It’s completely empowering.
On the surface it sounds great… but if you dig deeper there are three problems with this message. The first problem is the way you define the word “success”. Why should we be taught that the only acceptable form of success is your form of success? Corporate success. What if a woman is completely overjoyed with her life as a new mother? Is her absolute happiness not a legitimate enough reason to call her successful? Your speech constantly shames women who choose the path of compassion and family, but why has money and competitiveness triumphed over the very traits that make us human?
The parameters you’ve set for women to work within are extremely limiting and contradictory. On the one hand you’re saying that any woman can be anyone she wants to be, but on the other hand you’re saying that she should only strive to climb the corporate ladder. The focus of women’s empowerment has shifted so drastically over the years because of corporate bound individuals like yourself. What used to be the basis for women’s growth and freedom has now turned into just another company advertisement. Your message of “empowerment” falls into the long list of trivial theories that apply to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich. Your message is nothing more than a marketing tactic used to reinforce white privilege and provide false hope for those who will never be provided with the opportunities you were granted your whole life.
This leads to problem number two. Your message is directed at “all” women when in reality it focuses on a very specific demographic: white and upper class. Unfortunately, not every single woman grows up with the adequate amount of resources it takes to “lean in.” Many are born into low-income families where they are unable to afford the type of “quality education” you got at Harvard University. Many are born into such conditions that do not even allow them to complete high school. Your message of clawing your way to the top does not consider those young girls who are forced to stay at home to care for their younger siblings while their parents struggle to make ends meet. Your message says “all women” when you really mean to say “all women like myself.”
You seem to have a general understanding of sexism, but you fail to even lightly touch on how much more severe that discrimination becomes when it intersects with racism, class, and women of color. Your speech includes numerous statistics, but not even one that mentions the disparity in race and class in the corporate world. In this way, your message is flawed, exclusive, and misguiding. In this way, you are exhibiting the very attitude you intended to defeat.
Problem number three focuses on these women of color and the attitudes that are directed at them. A black woman who is perceived as a criminal will not have the same types of opportunities as the people who are racially profiling her. If a woman is considered to be a threat because of her skin color, just imagine how much more difficult it would be for her to lean in and be aggressive. In her world, aggression might actually have the opposite effect that it has on you. Latasha Harlins for example, was shot and killed because of her color. Her skin color alone stripped her of any opportunities for advancement. In fact, her skin color alone stripped her of her most basic human right: life. How can you tell us that anyone can be anything when some of us can’t even be ourselves without fearing for our lives?
Your road to success sounds so simple when you break it down into three simple steps. However you fail to consider three very important factors. Most importantly, you fail to consider reality. Your speech is set up in a perfect world void of the discrimination that so heavily exists in today’s society. Your speech is set up in a world lacking diversity, where everybody has the same goals and opportunities. Your speech is set up in a world that is boring.
My ideal success is attaining whatever goals I set for myself, and I intend to do so with a sense of compassion and community. I am a human, and I am not afraid of my qualities. I am a woman and I am not ashamed that I enjoy leaning on others for support. The world is a lonely place when you’re the only one leaning in at the top of the corporate ladder. I refuse to lean in if it means not having anyone to lean on. Sorry Sheryl Sandberg, but I’m going to have to lean out.