Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to Assign Us Feminist Homework

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Don’t bother trying to avoid Facebook chief operating officer and noted haver-of-it-all Sheryl Sandberg’s coming women’s workplace movement. If there’s one takeaway from Jodi Kantor’s front-page New York Times story about Lean In, Sandberg’s hybrid feminist manifesto/professional-educational program for women, it’s that it will soon be everywhere. Starting March 10, Lean In will be promoted on 60 Minutes, on Good Morning America, in Time, and in Cosmopolitan, which should collectively provide enough fodder to preoccupy ladyblog posts and op-ed columns through the end of the summer.

Inspired by Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (happy birthday, BTW), Lean In aspires to be the textual totem of a social movement played out in small, self-organizing cells of women across America. Sandberg’s Lean In Circles™ are just like the consciousness-raising groups of the seventies, except instead of rapping about the sexist garbage you had to deal with that week, you get three minutes to make a personal statement before watching a 60 to 90 minute “education module” video, curated by Sandberg, on topics like “Using Stories Powerfully: Advocating for Your Ideas.” It seems a little self-contradicting that Sandberg’s solution to lingering workplace inequality requires women put in two extra hours of professional development each month. (You can get kicked out of your Circle for poor attendance!) But with small financial commitments and high PR returns for corporate sponsors, employees of companies like American Express, Google, Sony, and Johnson & Johnson might soon be receiving the materials to start their own Lean In Circles™.

"Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach," Anne-Marie Slaughter memorably wrote after Sandberg first unveiled her philosophy in a TED talk. "We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: 'What’s the matter with you?'" Sandberg's remedial professionalism school for women won't do much to counteract that notion, particularly for women with fewer resources than hers. (One striking detail from Kantor’s piece: The book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser.) The Lean In materials Kantor acquired are in the chilly lingo of corporate human resources; the message is basically that women need to adjust their workplace attitudes to achieve. Women's internal conflicts — not negotiating hard enough for a raise, slowing down in anticipation of maternity leave — are all that’s keeping them out of the elusive, male-centric upper echelon. 

The Lean In plan made me think about the never-ending influx of diet and fitness trends, and how much easier it is to sell women on quick-fix promises for achieving the bodily ideal than it is to generate large-scale discourse about how the body-image game, at large, is rigged against women. (Maybe the problem isn't your thighs. Maybe the problem is the impossible standard set by your Photoshopped magazine.) Sandberg's self-help-y approach could position her as the equivalent of a diet guru for work-life balance, teaching women how to achieve an impossible standard set by people who didn't worry about spending time with their kids.

According to Kantor, Sandberg writes that she focuses on internal barriers to women’s success because the external, systemic ones get more attention. But that’s hard to stomach, coming from a woman who is at the top of her game, and thus has some control over the system. There’s no question that Sandberg has done good for women at Google and Facebook. But ideally, wouldn't she and her mentees leverage their hard-earned professional and political power to make the demands of workplace suit its changing workforce? Rather than selling prescriptions about how to assimilate to the old, male-dominated one? Kantor wrote that "some wonder" whether Lean In is a stepping stone for Sandberg's future political career — which would be much more encouraging. Less homework, more Senate runs!