Lean In

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - Sheryl Sandberg, ...

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One of the wonderful things about being rich and famous (aside from being rich and famous) is that when you co-author a book, it tends to get a great deal of attention. This, of course, generally translates well into sales-thus resulting in even more wealth and fame.

The latest book of this sort is  Lean In, which was written by professional writer Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg. As is the case with such works Sandberg (rather than Scovell) is the focus of attention.

Sandberg is pitching her book as “sort of a feminist manifesto”  but has been attacked by women such as Maureen Dowd, Jodi Kantor, and Judith Shulevitz. It is also worth noting that she has also been supported by some well-known women as well, such as Rebecca Traister and Katha Pollitt.

To be honest, I do not plan to buy her book. I’ve read Wollstonecraft and other feminists who have, at least according to what I have read, do a much better job than Sandberg. Also, with a personal worth approaching $1 billion, I surely need my money more than her.

However, I will address a few points about her and the book within the limits of my knowledge of the material.

On the face of it, her situation shows quite clearly that feminism and equality have made vast strides since the time when Mary Wollstonecraft penned her famous Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft argued that women should be free to seek the career of their choice and that they should not be dependent on men for their support. Wollstonecraft was, of course, motivated by her view of virtue: as she saw it, the situation of women of her time was an impediment to the development of virtue in both men and women. For example, a woman who does not earn her money cannot exercise generosity-she can only give away her husband’s money. Sandberg has, in many ways, achieved what Wollstonecraft wanted: she is wealthy, has a career of her own, and is an influential person in society. She is also a mother and wife. Since I do not know her, I cannot comment on her moral standing in terms of virtue.

Given that Sandberg and so many other women are doing exceptional well, it might be tempting to consider her book somewhat pointless. After all, it would seem that feminism has achieved its goals. Of course, the obvious reply is that just as Obama being president does not prove the end of racism, Sandberg’s billion does not mark the end of sexism. After all, feminists are quick to present the usual claims about women making less than men and men still being the majority of those holding positions of power. In fact, a common approach these days is to note the accomplishments of women like Sandberg and then add a “but…” which is then followed by the usual suspects of institutional sexism.

Sandberg apparently deviates a bit from the script and has been attacked for this. The three main points raised against her as follows. First, she has been accused of being hard on women by focusing too much on what is generally referred to as “internalized sexism.” This is the notion that women behave in ways that the sexist would impose on them without being so imposed on externally. For example, a women who has internalized sexism would be passive during a discussion and yield to the more assertive males-even though there was no active attempt to suppress her (and she might even be actively encouraged to be more active and assertive).  Sandberg advocates that women need to take responsibility for their own success, to “lean in” as the book title says.  As might be suspected, she has been accused of blaming the victim by taking the view that women have considerable responsibility when it comes to their success or failure. This is, of course, in contrast with the stock view that women would succeed if only they were not victims of the patriarchy, which leads to the second point.

While Sandberg does make some mention of institutional sexism (that is, the imposition of sexism from the outside) she has been attacked for not being critical enough. Given her vast success, it does make some sense that she would not see the institutional sexism the same way as someone who perceives herself as  a victim. After all, it would be rather odd for an intelligent woman to sincerely rage against the patriarchy while gazing down at the vast majority of men from atop a pile of a billion dollars. Of course, the relevant issue is whether or not she has the matter right in terms of the obstacles women face.

There is, as many have argued, still elements of sexism in society and these do serve to impede the success of women. Of course, it could be noted that sexism is just one sub-machine in the vast machine of institutionalized inequality. Most people, men and women, will never achieve Sandberg’s success no matter how smart they are or how hard they work and part of the reason for this is institutionalized inequality. As might be imagined, Sandberg’s book presumably does not address this matter in any detail. As might be guessed, I tend to see things like sexism and racism as components of an overarching system of inequality-a system in which Sandberg can be a billionaire while others struggle to make enough money to buy their next meal.

A third point of criticism has been against Sandberg’s perceived elitism-that her using herself as an example is unfair to the average woman. On the one hand, this criticism can be seen as lacking in merit and a mere ad hominem attack based, perhaps, in jealousy rather than substance.

On the other hand, this criticism can have some substance to it. After all, when considering the difficulties and challenges that are faced by women, the perspective and experiences of Sandberg certainly do not match up to those of most other women. To use an example, a woman who cannot afford a nanny (or nannies) is going to face different challenges than Sandberg did when raising children. To use an analogy, my perspective and experience of the difficulty of covering 5+ miles on foot is rather different from that of most people. For me, it is something I can do easily (in fact, I do that six days a week and often run 2-3 times that distance) but for most people it would be at least challenging. As might be imagined, I am sensible enough to temper any advice I give to people based on what I know about their own abilities and experience. I do not, for example, just go around telling people to “run in.”

In any case, her book has been a major success for her-the controversy it has generated could not have been better crafted to help focus the attention of the media elites upon her and she is certainly going to move a lot of paper. While I am not sure if more women will “lean in”, we can be assured that she will cash in.


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  1. There is much bull crap written both on philosophy and the suppossed equality of woman.

    It irks me to maintain false pretences.

    I think I am not a sexist but I know for definate that I am a realist.

    I am a Doctor of Philosophy so at least I have proven to a few that I could fool them well enough to be awarded my degree.

    I myself am not fooled that easily.

    Evolution has not yet gotten around to making women equal to men.

    Hen pecked men have been forced into declaring women equal to men. Admittedly, some woman are superior to some men, but that is only when we look at the top end of the female distribution and the bottom end of the male distribution. When the chips are down, we return to the natural order of evolution.

    That does not mean that I have objections to giving women equal opportunitie; quite the contrary, but when the law insists on equal numbers of male and female it is tantamount to requiring sports teams to have equal numbers of good male players and bad female players.

    If women were equal to men then they would have the same qualifying times as men and the Olympics would be uni-sexual. All events would open to all genders, male, bi and female with exactly the same qualification requirements.

    Get real guys and get off this equality pretense. Not even all men are equal

    Phoenix I

  2. The statement that men and women are equal does not mean that they are identifical, but that
    they have equal rights, equal capacity to reason, equal capacity to chose their lives,
    equal need to have autonomy over their lives, etc.

    What’s more, a lot of research indicates that many of the differences that we perceive between men and women are the result of their education, of being raised to conform to gender stereotypes and that if we were educated without gender stereotypes, many of the perceived differences between the sexes would not longer appear.

  3. “For example, a women who has internalized sexism would be passive during a discussion and yield to the more assertive males-even though there was no active attempt to suppress her ”

    Internalized, but….It’s not something coming out of a vacuum. We internalise social rules because there is usually some kind of penalty for breaking them. Sexist men, and I have seen this with my own eyes, get upset when confronted by an assertive woman.

    In the “people skills” world Sandberg has navigated herself through, that assertiveness or appearing “unfeminine” early in her career could have nipped it in the bud. Now she has FEB money (that’s ^%%^ everybody money), she can say what she likes, but she’s not credible as far as I’m concerned.

    “A third point of criticism has been against Sandberg’s perceived elitism-that her using herself as an example is unfair to the average woman.”

    It’s not “perceived” elitism, she is an elite. And this doesn’t mean she has some super human abilities. She came from an upper-middle-class household, indubitably weaved into the ruling class of America. Literally, she just had to show up, be the delightful kind of young woman suffocatingly conservative powerful men like.

    She was always going to be a multimillionaire, that she lucked out and made a billion wasn’t due to some magic on her part. She could have landed in turkey of a dotcom.

    “On the one hand, this criticism can be seen as lacking in merit and a mere ad hominem attack based, perhaps, in jealousy rather than substance.”

    It’s not jealousy, it’s the reality of peoples’ lives. Her experience is largely irrelevant. Her experience is as alien as the experience of the Queen of England. Closer to the experience of the average woman would be the women working in sales for Google or Facebook. They could tell you a lot about sexism. I do not believe for a second Sandberg would have ever wanted these women to be assertive.

    In our flavour of capitalism, sexism has a function. Women are easier to exploit than men (not the elite women – the ordinary ones). There are other big businesses with women in the boardroom, where the companies ruthlessly and very deliberately exploit vulnerable women. They strategically plot to increase the vulnerability of these women. I’m not pointing a finger at Sandberg, but I have heard women in a similar position as her speak about feminism, when they same women were very deliberately grinding down other women – and sexism being an important tool in this business.

  4. Dr Paul,

    You are a sexist. I’m sorry you had to find out this way.

    “but when the law insists on equal numbers of male and female it is tantamount to requiring sports teams to have equal numbers of good male players and bad female players.”

    Sitting in a warm room, doing a little genteel box ticking, is not really on a par with running around a field physically competing in a sport.

    There is a drivelishness to your argument. Most senior officers in companies are men well past their sporting prime. Physically, they’re not up to much.

  5. JMRC,

    Interesting points. It is worth considering how much of her money was made from the exploitation of others and how much her success requires an exploitative economic system that pushes people back when they try to lean in.

  6. Mike LaBossiere,

    Well, capitalism functions on the basis of inequality. Which is not a bad thing as it sounds – when we have inequalities, it often means we have something to trade with each other. Mike the philosopher needs some plumbing done, Mike the plumber needs some philosophizing……it kind of works like that.

    Grotesque inequalities are just that; grotesque. But even then it’s not in the numbers. A billionaire who has a super yacht while the people of the country where she made her billion are well fed, receive good affordable medical care, is absurd but not quite grotesque. A billionaire who lives the life of an especially debauched Roman emperor while the people around her starve and live terrible lives is very much a grotesque – throw in some violence and oppression, and you have a hell with no justification.

    And somewhere midway between the extremes there’s another kind of exploitation. Where Mike the Plumber uses some trick of the social structure to force Mike the Philosopher to give up some free, or ultra cheap philosophizing (rigging the game so the choice is “take it or leave it”, is often just as good as force).

    The thing about people like Sandberg is I’m not sure about them – do they really believe they’re “worth it!”. On her TED Talk she seems to be saying that – in a little story about her brother and an exam (Hegel gets a mention too) – the moral of the story is women don’t slap themselves on the back and give themselves total credit for their personal success. There is something sour in that message. You would have to be a real idiot to believe you should thank yourself for freakish success – or are particularly selfish when it comes to be asked to share some of the dough.

    Her whole cookie cutter TED Talk was on why they weren’t enough women “leaders” in business. This is another part of the problem. These people tell themselves they are “leaders” – they deserve the pomp of a Roman emperor (they believe there are hordes of admirers – the syphcophants the wealthy accumulate tend to give that impression, typically a rich business “leader” won’t be noticed in the street unless they’ve spent years playing the clown like Donald Trump). The truth is, they are not “leaders”. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Charles De Gaulle, these people were leaders. People like Sheryl, they’re shop keepers. They are just shop keepers, fumbling and (occasionally fiddling) over the til. Real leaders actually lead – take their people to some place – the Mosaic thing. A shop keeper is thinking how to get a little more out of their people for less. It shouldn’t even be gratified by referring to it as Pharaonic.

    The ability to buy a super yacht is not a demonstration of “leadership”. Throwing thousands of people to the dogs, just to get a blip on the stock market to fatten your bank account is not leadership. And employing any kind of slave labour anywhere cannot be regarded as a leadership. If you called an Ante Bellum plantation owner/manager a leader, people would laugh. But you’ll occasionally get one giving a touchy feely talk on TED, and people applaud.

    Sheryl wants love….And with her kind of money, she’ll never feel unloved in her whole life again. …There is a curse that effects the super rich – they fret that people around them may only love them for their cash. If you did something to create a world like that, then it’s unsurprising.

  7. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/worldthinkers/

    The sad thing is that this lady is here to be voted on as one of the world’s top thinkers.

    If she’s a top thinker, I’m Wittgenstein.

    Why isn’t Peter Singer on the list, by the way?

  8. swallerstein,

    There’s quite a few names on that list you wouldn’t really consider “thinkers”. Sheryl Sandberg, is the typical shop keeper, sorry, business “leader”, who has a business book ghost written and then does a talk tour.

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb refuses to be put on these lists. He feels they debase knowledge. Which they do. If someone is on the list for being a business pop star, it’s just sycophancy. It might be Prospect Magazine, but last year Taleb offered one of these magazines an interview, with the proviso that they do not put him on their top one hundred or whatever list – and they went ahead put him on it.

    Taleb also refuses to do TED Talks, because it really has gone to hell. It seems to be just a platform for marketing professionals to promote themselves these days. The thing about ideas, and the most important ones, is that they are troubling, if it’s not troubling it’s not worth hearing – everything on TED Talks these days has come wrapped in a chocolate box. TED so scripted, right down to the condescending and smug ironic nods. There’s some dreadful stuff up there. Drivel like saving everyone in the developing world with social media – yep, it’s that simple. All the Africans need to do is download an app on their i-phones and African poverty will be ended.

    I’ve noticed Prospect Magazine put Slavoj Zizek down in the far left corner, just on the edge of the page.

  9. JMRC:

    How well that is put! Ideas are troubling indeed.

    Zizek is perhaps the only thinker on the list whose ideas disturb conventional wisdom.

    Marcuse would have described the list as “one-dimensional”.

    Of course, neither you nor I pay much attention to such lists, but often young people, just beginning to read on their own, do, as a guide to which authors to select.

  10. If someone is still following this conversation, here is a good critique of Sandberg’s opus and what it signifies for feminism from, yes, Al Jazeera.


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