on (not) leaning in but breaking out

Tonight I read bell hook’s critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. A frolleague (friend + colleague) posted the article on facebook, and I was eager to learn what accomplished visionary feminist hooks had to say about Sandberg’s “feminist manifesto.” hooks labels the book “faux feminist,” and thoughtfully delineates how Sandberg’s book perpetuates gender, race, and class privilege.

I read Sandberg’s book back in April, and mused about some of the same issues, far less eloquently than hooks. I wrote the following review on goodreads (I awarded the book two stars). I’m grateful for books that make me think, that seemingly challenge but ultimately strengthen my ideology…and I’m grateful for smart writers who expand my own critique.

“It is not a feminist manifesto—okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto, but one that I hope inspires men as much as it inspires women” (Sandberg 9).

I was rooting for Sandberg and hoping that Lean In would, indeed, be a feminist manifesto. But this early sentence suggested that while the book would explore issues of gender and power, it would not be exactly feminist. For feminism does include men, and Sandberg’s statement, like much of the book that follows, convinced me that she didn’t have a deep understanding of contemporary feminism. And that is disappointing, because Sandberg has power and status, a compelling story, and the ability to reach many readers.

Even if I set my radical feminist preferences aside, I still quibble with Sandberg’s suggestions, which urge women to explore their internal blocks to leadership and success in a male world. Lean In places the onus on women alone to modify their behavior and make changes, and while some of these lessons on self-promotion, equal partnership, and peer advocacy are vital, they are not the whole story. And, the models of leadership Sandberg presents still adhere closely to male models.

My larger issue with Sandberg’s book, however, is Sandberg’s own privilege, and failure to fully acknowledge the interlocking oppressions that often hinder women in the workplace. The book would’ve been richer if it had included discussions of how gender, along with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, education, and other identity categories intersect to hinder and/or aid women leaders. A discussion of the women supporting Sandberg’s own work would’ve also made the book a more complex and compelling read. I was disappointed that Nell Scovell, co-writer, was relegated to the title page inside the book, and the acknowledgments in the back. While this may be standard publishing practice, I felt this was a missed opportunity. Acknowledging a supporting writer on the cover would send the message of collaboration and recognition that Sandberg seems to promote.

I also found Sandberg’s defense of Marissa Mayer’s decision to work through maternity leave problematic. Leaders need to both make decisions that benefit themselves, but that also take into account the collective experience of others. In a climate that still begrudges parental leave, celebrating women and men of power who eschew such leave does not help secure this choice for women and men in other, less powerful, positions. Critiquing Mayer’s choice does not diminish our appreciation for achievements, and a blind “we’re in this together, I have your back, sister,” mentality that Sandberg suggests does not promote real change, in my opinion.


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