Fortune 500 Feminism

Nicole Curato

dan11 300x300

Facebook’s COO wrote a feminist manifesto for the corporate world. But can the experiences of a rich woman shattering glass ceilings serve as lessons for the 99 percent?

ap books sheryl sandberg 3 4 r536 c534 225x300

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg
Knopf, 2013

Sheryl Sandberg was once described as “Mark Zuckerberg’s most valuable friend.” As Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, she is credited for bringing stability into Facebook’s tumultuous start-up phase. Unlike her boss, however, Sandberg stands out for appearing well put together, for being “chatty” and comfortable in the limelight.

Media traction on Sandberg’s success is undeniable. As I write this piece, her Ted Talk and Commencement Address in Barnard College have been viewed over a million times. Her constant presence in high profile events and media interviews is an indication that her ideas are generating interest, if not warm reception from broad audiences.  She has become an evangelist to her 1.2 million Twitter followers, promoting great work women do in less than 140 characters.

Her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is making its way to the top of New York Timesbestseller list. Bulk of the book diagnoses women’s work habits that set them back compared to their male counterparts. This includes failing to negotiate a better salary or asking for a promotion, opting to sit in the sidelines rather than in the table during important meetings, constantly wanting to be liked, choosing a partner with patriarchal values and, in the spirit of a quasi-memoir, quasi-self help book, neglecting to acknowledge that one’s achievements are truly well-deserved.

Pundits have been punishing. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd gave a scathing review, not of her book, but of her celebrity. Dowd dismissed Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer as a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots” who uses “social idealism for the purposes of marketing.”

In The Atlantic, international relations scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter questions Sandberg’s emphasis on women making behavioral changes, as if “what’s the matter with you?” is the only legitimate question professionally successful women like Sandberg and herself could ask women struggling in their careers.

dan 443x1024

Slaughter v. Sandberg

Professor Slaughter’s critique of Sandberg, perhaps owing to her scholarly and policy background, insists that gender gaps in the workplace are structural, not behavioral in nature. Policy responses are necessary to make the workplace conducive not only for mothers, but also for all people with commitments outside the office, whether it is caring for elderly parents, training for a marathon, or running soup kitchens.

Rather than the lack of ambition, it is what Slaughter calls “default rules” governing workplaces that must be changed. Expectations “about when, where and how work will be done” should be revised to allow women to pursue their career ambitions while attending to other equally important responsibilities. Examples of these reforms, some of which are mentioned in Lean In, include allowing flexible working hours, enhancing telecommuting to reduce the need for constant travel and institutionalizing work from home arrangements.

Many businesses continue to be resistant to taking on these reforms including Yahoo!—a company run by a female CEO who opted to skip her own maternity leave—which recently banned work from home to enhance the company’s productivity levels by literally making their employees work side-by-side. “I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies rather than women’s ambition in explaining the dearth of women at the top” Slaughter argues.

A straw (wo)man debate

Slaughter, together with critics of Sandberg’s discourse, has made an important intervention in the Sandberg-centric discussion by emphasizing institutional solutions to seemingly personal problems. The trouble with these critiques, however, is they end up creating straw (wo)man; nobody, not even Sheryl Sandberg, is arguing against making policy changes to make workplaces more humane. To put forward these ideas is important, but to frame them as antithetical to Sandberg’s advocacy is misleading.

In the first few pages of Lean In, Sandberg expresses awareness of what she calls the “chicken and egg” debate in gender inequality: Should women achieve leadership roles to get rid of external barriers to success or should external barriers to success be eliminated to get women into leadership roles in the first place? She argues that the strategy should be both. “In addition to external barriers erected by society, women are also hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves,” she says. The book acknowledges the importance of the former, but opts to focus the book on addressing the latter.  It puts forward a simple argument: that there are immediate, behavioral changes women can do to advance their careers and these changes may also be useful in campaigning for policy changes in the workplace.

Lean In is not a book without nuance. Aside from supporting personal anecdotes with statistical evidence from authoritative sources, Sandberg usually follows strongly-worded statements with qualifications. When she claims “to struggle with the trade-offs between work and home on a daily basis,” she subsequently acknowledges “that I am far luckier than most. I have remarkable resources… the ability to hire great people to assist me in both in the office and at home, and a good measure of control over my schedule.”  At times, it feels like the book is attempting to preempt criticisms of Sandberg’s inability to relate to ordinary women due to her class and educational background. By peppering the book with qualifying statements, it does seem that Mark Zuckerberg has basis for telling her to quit wanting to be liked.

Even though Sandberg pitches the book as “sort of a feminist manifesto,” she also recognizes that her audience is limited. The book makes no grand claims of speaking for all women. Most of the content will resonate with “women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work.”

The fair object of critique then, is the message this book sends to women privileged enough to have a shot at making it to leadership roles. What kind of ideological structures does Sandberg perpetuate and what effect does this have on women who, by virtue of their disadvantaged backgrounds, are not part of the Lean Inmania?

Market-driven feminism

Unsurprisingly, the perspective Sandberg promotes further locks in women in a market-driven system where women’s skills are molded to fit the desirable template of business leaders in contemporary capitalism. Much like female factory workers trained to be meek, obedient, and nimble, privileged women are encouraged to imbibe the ethos of risk-taking, aggressiveness, and relentless pursuit of career advancement.

Sandberg’s career advice are brought to life by her Lean In Circles, which trains groups of six to eight women in corporate workspaces to negotiate, speak in public, and communicate more authoritatively. Sandberg has found a surprising ally in Naomi Wolf who compared Lean In Circles to feminists’ consciousness-raising groups which also train women to speak “in a strong, declarative voice.” The difference, however, is that while Wolf teaches women to make stronger statements against oppression, the unintended consequence of Sandberg’s crusade is to further thrust women into a system of capitalist values that have compromised the empowerment of poorer, working class women.

Think of Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett Packard—a company that subcontracts manufacturing to Foxconn—a company notorious for hiring young girls to work in subhuman conditions. Marillyn A. Hewson, the President and CEO of Lockheed Martin, is another example. Lockheed Martin is one of the world’s biggest defense contractors—the type that produces weapons like drones that kill young girls like Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan.

Whitman and Hewson’s professional success prove that women can take the lead in running the world’s most influential companies. However, they also exemplify that successful women, just like their male counterparts, are complicit in making other women’s lives worse. Uncritically celebrating such professional advancement in a vacuum is like saying there should be more women in Philippine politics even though they belong to oligarchic dynasties.

Invisible women

This, I think, is the most agonizing gap in an otherwise amusing book—it is oblivious of the interconnectedness of women’s struggles from all walks of life, from all over the world. As Sandberg builds women’s capacities to become part of the 1%, her efforts remain insensitive to their consequences to the 99%.

Reaching the top usually entails perpetuating a supply chain of feminized labor—from “big shot women” hiring cleaners and caregivers to look after their domestic responsibilities to the mothers of cleaners and caregivers who take over child rearing as their daughters work for big shot women. The sad truth is women’s successes are almost always parasitic on other women’s subordination. And it is these women that are invisible in Sandberg’s promotion of Fortune 500 feminism.

By gaining power, women do not necessarily rectify injustice. Cunning negotiation skills and assertive speech styles do very little in a world that demands compassion, care, and recognition of women’s interconnected struggles. Ultimately, the best test of Sandberg’s career advice is what successful women would do when factory workers, cleaners, carers, and undervalued female workers actually lean in, “internalize the revolution,” “sit at the table,” and demand for equality.