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Girlboss Feminism: Leaning Back from Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg announced that she is leaving her position at Facebook’s parent company, Meta, after a 14-year stint that followed positions at Google, the World Bank, and the Treasury Department. As Chief Operating Officer, Sandberg oversaw Facebook’s growth into a corporate behemoth that raked in $117 billion in 2021 (CNN Business, Meta). She grew an immense public profile from advocacy for Facebook’s business interests and for women’s entrance into institutional leadership positions. Her departure has been hailed as the “death knell” for Sandberg’s Lean In “girlboss” feminism (CNN). 

Sandberg became a household name with her 2013 “feminist manifesto,” Lean In. She advised professional women to break the glass ceiling and ascend the corporate ladder by, essentially, trying very hard. Lean In provides a suite of self-improvement tools and tactics for women to ascend by “welding the professional and personal identity into one and working relentlessly to beat men at their own game” (The Nation, TNR, CNN). Advancing requires extra work for women under patriarchy, but that’s the price of getting to the board room. 

TAKE ACTION

Consider: how is your work connected to your ideas of equity and justice? What are the effects of the institutions you’re a part of on members and the surrounding community? 

Individually climbing oppressive structures, not banding together to undo them, is the Lean In model for feminist social change. But if ending patriarchy depends on women having enough willpower, grit, and “individual empowerment” to get ahead, then women who don’t must be at fault for not having leaned in enough (Harvard Business Review). 

Sandberg says that once an exceptional female professional rises to the top, she’ll institute policies that benefit her female subordinates: trickle-down feminism. All-male leadership teams are less likely to understand the female staff’s interests. We’re all less likely to aspire to certain positions if we never see somebody like us in them. But empirically, female leaders don’t automatically make feminist policies (Forbes). Female mayors in Spain were no more likely than male mayors to implement policies that support gender equity (SSRN). Female professors described their female students as uncommitted more often than male professors did (Forbes). 

Individual advancement in a patriarchal system often requires “pursuing an individual strategy of advancement that centers on distancing themselves from other women.” The same is true for other marginalized groups (The Atlantic). To succeed in an organization run by an old boys’ club, you have to befriend the club’s members. Perhaps you’ve internalized the same bigoted norms that made you a trailblazer in the first place. At the very least, you’ve had to go along with them. As Sandberg said, when she started at Google, she “thought that a bunch of the senior women were mean, just mean.” She later realized it was just that “they were the same as the men” (Duke). 

And as a leader, you might have different interests from women who aren’t part of the elite. Lean In “girlboss” feminism doesn’t acknowledge that what’s good for a “girlboss” isn’t always suitable for a “girl worker.” Generous parental leave is good for gender equity, but it’s also a cost that could hurt a corporation’s bottom line. Though Yahoo offered two months of maternity leave, CEO Marissa Mayer only took two weeks after she gave birth. Critics expressed concern that her example might indirectly pressure female subordinates to follow her lead (The Guardian).

The other problem with corporate feminism is that it doesn’t question the corporation itself. Wells Fargo, an official Lean In Platform Partner, was a major player in breaking the global economy in 2008, setting off a wave of evictions disproportionately likely and especially harmful for women (Eviction Lab, CNN, The Baffler). Facebook employees like Sandberg are served by 500 cafeteria workers at its Menlo Park campus. One worker, Nicole, lived in a two-car garage with her husband and three children. She helped unionize her cafeteria so she would no longer struggle to buy food or borrow money for medical treatment. It wasn’t a lack of inspiration, work ethic, or desire that stood in her way. What held her back was the poverty intentionally created by Facebook’s executive team — Sandberg included (The Guardian). These subcontractors are disproportionately women of color, though for Lean In, “girlboss” feminism, “race is certainly an invisible category,” and “white supremacy is a taboo subject.” Sandberg “uses her race and class power,” wrote bell hooks, to craft a feminism that “undermines visionary feminist concerns” (Feminist Wire). 

Representation matters, but diversifying the management of multinational corporations simply isn’t a winning strategy for change. The same goes for the CIA (The Intercept), police departments (NBC), and the Oval Office (Counterpunch, Politico, The Guardian). Corporate and political power depends on the exploitation and oppression of marginalized communities. We aren’t going to find liberation by inserting people like us into the ranks of our oppressors.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Lean In encouraged women to take leadership roles to improve conditions for all women. 

• Diversifying leadership isn’t sufficient to ensure equitable change. 

• Individual career advancement doesn’t address structural inequalities.

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