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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