Women Should Lean In, But Not Buy In to a Broken System

Media coverage of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book release is starting to feel like Feminist Civil Wars Redux: Sheryl “women should lean in” Sandberg vs. Anne-Marie “women can’t have it all” Slaughter. Because Slaughter, a former State Department official, once critiqued Sandberg’s work as being “only half the story” there’s been an urge to declare a new phase of infighting and pick “Team Sheryl” or “Team Anne-Marie.”

But the “vs.” construction perpetuates a fallacy.

Many women feel that Sandberg’s battle cry—women must be assertive at work and force men to shoulder more at home—is far from incompatible with Slaughter’s impassioned plea for more humane workplace policies embedded into in our social scaffolding.

Splitting these two into oppositional corners repeats an insidious catfight image and also elides the complexity of a structural issue (which Slaughter identifies) that has settled in our hearts and minds (Sandberg’s focus). So yes, Slaughter’s assertion that Sandberg’s approach is only half the story is true, and important—but that doesn’t preclude what Sandberg can offer us. And Sandberg’s cheerleading for individual women’s advancement works best if it’s accompanied by some good old fashioned collective-minded activism.

What leaning in gets us

According to the public appearances that preceded her book, Sandberg wants career-oriented women to grow comfortable with power and make up for a gendered “confidence gap.” She’s spot on when she notes that for men in many fields, gender is a silent unearned boost (this is basically the idea of the invisible backpack of privilege, a favorite progressive construction) and women need to be aware of it and arm themselves accordingly.

Sandberg addresses how “the system”—aka good old sexist American capitalism—becomes part of our mentality. Women expect a lack of support and sympathy in that system, so we don’t try as hard from the outset.

Her observations ring true. I’ve seen many a female friend start fretting about the work-family juggle long before the family part kicked in, while their male partners slogged away towards a promotion. I’m a freelancer, but I just switched to a new part-time job that appealed partly because it will offer me things like sick time and leave when and if I start a family down the road, a consideration that probably wouldn’t have seemed as important to me at this stage of life if I were a man.

Sandberg also points out that if office-work is to be divided evenly by gender, housework and child-raising should be too. She notes that when women are more successful, they are actually perceived as less likable. All these things have to change, and the change starts with us.

What leaning in will never get us (but organizing and agitating will)

But attitude adjustment isn’t everything. Sandberg’s critics rightly worry that too much emphasis on the way the system affects our individual mentalities ignores the fact that the system continues along its destructive path: the US is the pits in terms of family-friendly work policies, while workplace discrimination persists.

Meanwhile, many families have only one parent, two parents of the same gender, two parents working two jobs each, no kids but discrimination at work – or other situations where work-life balance and career advancement are more complicated than Sandberg acknowledges. For these families, empowered women firing-up their ambition at “Lean In”(TM) circles won’t offer much help. Unless, of course, those women then use their newfound power to agitate for everyone’s rights.

That’s why the“lean in” mantra works best in concert with an impetus to alter the status quo. If women, as Sandberg suggests we do, invest in our careers as long as we can and don’t “opt out,” we will gain more footholds, and eventually perches from which to affect policy.

If we embrace Sandberg’s going all-in idea, we can’t just be in it for ourselves. We have to acknowledge that for Slaughter, and for other women who have responded to Sandberg’s advice—like writer and editor Jessica Grose, who had to quit her new job due to pregnancy complications—leaning in clearly wasn’t enough.

Grose’s story resonates with what historian Stephanie Coontz wrote in the New York Times last weekend: many people already have evolved views on gender roles. They desperately want to do Sandberg’s ladies-lean-in men-do-the-dishes do-si-do but they simply can’t because, well, to get all radical for a minute, the machine of the profit-obsessed American workplace is grinding away at their choices and freedoms—including, for many workers, the right to organize.

Coontz’s must-read piece demonstrates that all the raised consciousnesses in the world won’t reverse the workweek expanding, wages shrinking, and the sad fact that basic rights like paid maternity leave and sick leave languish in political limbo in the U.S.

For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying. Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace.
Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.

When people like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is happy to oppose paid sick leave and once presided over a virulently sexist workplace at which pregnant women were outright harassed, embrace Sandberg’s mantra—even host her book party—women should be wary. When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who like Sandberg exemplifies leaning in, cracks down on employee flexibility, we should take note.

So yes, women with the privilege and time to engage in Sandberg’s form of self-examination can and should focus on fighting internalized sexism—and get the men in our lives to do so too. I know I’ve already benefited from pondering her ideas.

But as Coontz and Slaughter remind us, we shouldn’t buy in. We can play the game better, but the goal for men and women both should be to change the rules.

Otherwise, I fear we’ll end up in a society where the ambition-overloaded, free-time scorning corporate top dogs are split evenly by gender, and everyone below them sees their workplace freedoms wither. There may be more high heels in the boardroom—but such a future doesn’t sound much better than what we have today, even to a feminist.

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