Corporate Feminism And The Class Divide

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s not-yet-released book Lean In is already spurring controversy [NYT]:

In her view, women are also sabotaging themselves. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes, and the result is that “men still run the world.” Ms. Sandberg wants to take women through a collective self-awareness exercise. In her book, she urges them to absorb the social science showing they are judged more harshly and paid less than men; resist slowing down in mere anticipation of having children; insist that their husbands split housework equally; draft short- and long-term career plans; and join a “Lean In Circle,” which is half business school and half book club.

Melissa Gira Grant argues that Sandberg’s book ignores most women:

[T]his is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line. The “movement” Sandberg seeks to lead with Lean In resembles a social movement only so far as it supports the growth of her brand as leader. … It seems that the consciousness raised and solutions offered in Lean In Circles will be isolated to actions individual women can take to support their own ambitions and desires, rather than wondering about the ambitions and desires of, say, the women who keep house for the women spending their time “leaning in.” There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women.

Deanna Zandt is similarly critical:

[P]lacing the onus on women to fix themselves up is problematic to the core. I’m all for assertiveness training and teaching women how culturally they aren’t as welcomed into conversations and power structures as men are. (Research shows that when women take up more than 30% of the conversation space, for example, they’re viewed as “dominating” the discourse.) But without simultaneously taking on the structures that keep those norms in place, women are both helping to reproduce those structures over and over, and are punished for challenging them.

Michelle Goldberg pushes back:

These attacks, largely divorced from anything Sandberg has actually written or said, mean that there’s already a lot of public misunderstanding of her book’s message. One would think she was peddling a multilevel marketing scheme, not the most overtly feminist mainstream business book ever written. True, she wants to work within the system rather than smashing it, and parts of her book, as she acknowledges, “will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.” But so what? No book speaks to everyone, and leadership tomes by wildly successful male executives aren’t typically pilloried for ignoring the concerns of immigrant day laborers.

Jessica Valenti sees the criticism as representative of a more general problem within feminism:

What’s remarkable about these criticisms is that they’re not coming from the usual right-wing anti-feminists, but from feminists themselves. The feminist backlash against Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and a former vice president at Google, reveals a big and recurring problem within the movement: We hold leaders to impossible standards, placing perfection over progress. And a movement that does more complaining than creating is bound to fail. …

The view that Sandberg is too rich and powerful to advise working women is shortsighted; it assumes that any sort of success is antithetical to feminism. The truth is, feminism could use a powerful ally. Here’s a nationally known woman calling herself a feminist, writing what will be a wildly popular book with feminist ideas, encouraging other women to be feminists. And we’re worried she has too much influence? That she’s too . . . ambitious?

Sandberg’s view has been positioned opposite Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, covered on the Dish here. Recent Dish on female breadwinners here, here and here.