Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of Lean In, says that all company boards should be 20% women by 2020. She encourages women to pursue their ambitions, to ‘focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t do.’ The core principle of Lean In is that if women work hard, with a supportive circle of other hardworking women around them, they can achieve anything a man can in the corporate world. So now let’s talk about why it’s a lie.
Sheryl Sandberg is interested in women becoming CEOs, I won’t deny that. What she isn’t interested in are women who either cannot be CEOs or don’t want to be. At the end of May this year, a group of workers at the Hilton Hotel in Boston appealed to her for help in forming a union. They petitioned Sandberg to meet with the female workers at the hotel when she came to Boston to give a talk at Harvard, and she insisted that she did not have the time. Hardly surprising, given Sandberg’s love of supposedly ‘focusing on the positives’. She isn’t interested in workers who are struggling to form a union because they corrupt her message – that women can rise through the ranks of corporate America by applying themselves and thinking positive. The Hilton workers aren’t trying to rise anywhere; they just want fair pay and working conditions.
“Her brand of liberal feminism is about individual women achieving what they want, not any kind of collective action and structural change. Sandberg isn’t selling progress, she’s selling the American Dream. And yes, you still need a trust fund and an Ivy League education to get it.”
Sandberg wants to focus on the top tier of corporations because that way, she can avoid discussing the structural inequality of the companies she represents. It’s okay for a CEO to pay the lowest level workers minimum wage with no benefits as long as she’s a woman. And dealing with the working class is something Sandberg just can’t do, because taking one look at the lack of social mobility for low-level workers in the majority of companies shatters her perfect picture of hardworking women achieving their goals. Her brand of liberal feminism is about individual women achieving what they want, not any kind of collective action and structural change. Sandberg isn’t selling progress, she’s selling the American Dream. And yes, you still need a trust fund and an Ivy League education to get it.
Her refusal to take direct, proactive action with the Hilton workers is unsurprising when you look at what Lean In is actually about. To receive the Lean In stamp of approval, companies have to do one thing, and one thing only: state their commitment to gender equality. What else, you ask? Well, that’s it. You can apply to partner with Lean In on their website, stating in a few hundred words how your organisation is Leaning In. But of course, they probably have a vetting process. They wouldn’t let in companies that don’t really have a commitment to gender equality, would they?
Lean In partners
“And there’s no way Lean In would support big tobacco, right? But they do. And not just big tobacco, but the most cartoonishly evil corporation you could think of, British American Tobacco, who sell cigarettes to Nigerian children and have a plant in North Korea. Yes, it’s really in North Korea. Let that one sink in.”
Let’s take a look at some of the companies Lean In has partnered with and how they treat women. Bank of America, who denied loan modifications to eligible homeowners, thereby forcing them into foreclosures, have received the Lean In stamp of approval. Kicking families out of their homes hardly says gender equality – and it doesn’t stop there. Lean In have also partnered with Chiquita, who dump toxic pesticides that are illegal in most countries on their plantations while their farm labourers are working. Their pesticides poison local water supplies in impoverished regions. Oh, and let’s not forget their funding of paramilitary groups in Colombia and how they helped start a civil war in Guatemala. Amazon, who employ slave labour and who had ambulances on standby for when their workers collapsed from exhaustion and heat – and that includes sick and pregnant women – have also been approved. And there’s no way Lean In would support big tobacco, right? But they do. And not just big tobacco, but the most cartoonishly evil corporation you could think of, British American Tobacco, who sell cigarettes to Nigerian children and have a plant in North Korea. Yes, it’s really in North Korea. Let that one sink in.
Disproportionate effect on women
These issues don’t affect women exclusively, but they do affect them disproportionately. Conflict increases sexual violence and displaces women who tend to be the most vulnerable in countries. Bad working conditions and poison environments affect reproductive rights, and foreclosed homes disproportionately affect single mothers and other vulnerable women and dependents. Feminists should care about economic equality because the vast majority of women in the world are poor. But they aren’t just poor: they suffer from a lack of basic human rights, and they are in a far worse position than their male counterparts. The truth is that Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t care about these women, because they’re not Leaning In. She has no interest in women who can’t achieve greatness with minimal assistance, because that would mean tackling the structures she and her company are complicit in. What she really wants is to co-opt upper middle class, attractive, educated women just like her into those systems to protect them from criticism. Because Sandberg doesn’t just generate profit for despicable companies; she puts a feminist rubber stamp on the very ones that are oppressing literally thousands of women. Nestle and Coke’s sexist and abusive practices become harder to question with the face of liberal feminism supporting them, propping up their claim that they support gender equality.
In the end, this is what Sandberg and her brand of liberal feminism do to women and the movement. They discourage solidarity and encourage individual achievement. They tell women that you should be a CEO and if other women can’t do it, it’s their fault. Your achievements are yours; they don’t have to do with where you’re from, what school you went to or what your surname is. You don’t need to worry about other women and you don’t need to defend them. If they failed, it’s only because they didn’t Lean In, and you did. You just don’t get to where Sandberg is without huge privileges, and instead of using that position to challenge the structures that cause gender inequality – sexual violence, lack of education, poverty and many more – she tells women to develop a can-do attitude. Moreover, she tells women that a can-do attitude means generating profit for corporations that systematically abuse and exploit workers, many of whom are women, and often in a gendered way. In truth, what the Lean In movement really wants is for the people oppressing women to be 20% women by 2020. That just isn’t enough for me, and it shouldn’t be enough for you.
Illustration: John Tierney