• Hughlyn Wong

“Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, Revisited

Who is Sheryl Sandberg's feminism actually for?

By Hughlyn Wong

December 29, 2021


Around 4 years ago, I read the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. In this book, Sandberg talks about the ways she successfully became the COO of Facebook and outlines how you, too, can be a successful businesswoman. Her method includes gaining confidence to ask for a promotion or a raise, having your spouse take up 50% (or in her case over 50%) of the “traditional” housewife duties, and “leaning in” to essential conversations that women are usually left out of. This was recommended to me as a “feminist must-read”, and as a 13-year old, reading about the corporate world, it seemed extremely inapplicable. Other than that, I had little to no critique. However, after revisiting her work and learning about intersectionality, there are some glaring issues with her method.


Sandberg’s simple solution for workplace gender inequality is for women to gain the courage to step up into these corporate positions dominated by men. However, she fails to account for race and class, alienating multiple minority groups by her lack of intersectional thinking while placing the blame for inequality on women for not “leaning in”. By teaching women to break the glass ceiling, she is only preaching to white upper-class women who are already in the position to do so.


In the article “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” on The Feminist Wire, bell hooks says

"Perhaps, even in the corporate world, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is ready to accept as many white women as necessary to ensure white dominance. Race is certainly an invisible category in Sandberg’s corporate fantasy world."

Sandberg’s individualistic mindset mirrors her trickle-down feminism. With the ideology that by having more (white) women in elite positions, their better options will trickle down to other women by taking care of their interests. This myth is debunked by Audre Lorde in her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in her book Sister Outsider when she writes


“ … white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color … For white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools. Today…it is easier once again for white women to believe the dangerous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the right men, then you will be allowed to co-exist with patriarchy in relative peace, at least until a man needs your job…”

Trickle-down feminism is an excuse for women who pretend that their corporate positions aren’t founded on the oppression of others.



By telling women to lean in, Sandberg fails to acknowledge structural issues such as patriarchy, white male supremacy, and capitalism that maintain workplace inequality. The only way for women who pursue power under these systems is through these systems, making them complicit in upholding the patriarchy and white supremacy. For a woman at the top of the corporate world, there is an illusion of power; in reality, their power is a tool of oppression that marginalizes other intersectional identities.


Sandberg’s book offers no real solution to the implicit gender bias women face daily in and out of the workplace. Instead, we need to tackle the root causes of these problems, which are patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism, and unlearn these biases against each other as women, and among men. Instead of striving for individual success, we should strive for female solidarity in our diverse communities.

 
About the Author

Hi! I'm Hughlyn and I come from Hong Kong. I'm a 17-year-old junior at Hotchkiss School. I have been a feminist since middle school and conceptualized gender inequality. I'm part of Bluestockings, the gender equality club at school, and last summer I attended the Women in Leadership program at Brown University. As a teenage Asian girl, there are many topics that I feel "typical" feminist spaces don't discuss and I created this blog as an intersectional and safe area to talk about feminism and other random topics.


 

Sources


Cottom, Tressie M. "Trickle-Down Feminism, Revisited." Dissent, 26 Apr. 2016, www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/anne-marie-slaughter-trickle-down-feminism-unfinished-business-review.


Hooks, Bell. "Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In." The Feminist Wire, 28 Oct. 2013, thefeministwire.com/2013/10/17973/.


Lorde, Audre. "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 1984


Sandberg, Sheryl, and Nell Scovell. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York City, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.