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Opinion: Never Mind Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg; ‘Leaning In’ Isn’t Enough in the Workplace 

Poli Psy

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Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — the best-selling book a with tie-in training campaign and materials and corporate-sponsorship synergies — has been branded the 21st-century reboot of feminism. From the cover of Time magazine to the far reaches of the blogosphere, its author, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, has been nominated (and just as often voted down) as the next Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

What’s Lean In’s big idea? To bring equality to the workplace, women need to overcome the “ambition gap.” Don’t hang back, ladies, says Sandberg. Face your fears. Don’t slink onto the Mommy Track or retreat to stay-at-home motherhood. Grab a seat at the conference table and speak up. Insist that your husband take half the responsibility at home. In short, don’t be a wuss. (But make sure you’re smiling while doing all this.)

This, as the joke goes, is the revolution? Sandberg’s advice reminds me of the motto of the founder of the Quaker girls’ camp I went to in the ’60s: “Be ladylike but firm.”

I won’t reiterate all the criticisms of the book. Mainly, they come from feminists who feel that a person who was a protégée of economist/former secretary of the treasury Larry Summers, who counts Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey as close friends, and who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars is almost a different species from the rest of us female Homo sapiens. A heterosexual white woman married to the CEO of SurveyMonkey, a mother for whom a work-family crisis is the discovery, while on the eBay corporate jet that her daughter has head lice, has little to say to the single-mom supermarket cashier. Most women need daycare, unions and antidiscrimination laws more than exhortations to negotiate for better stock options in their compensation packages.

All true, but the critics have it only partly right.

The problem isn’t that women are acting like wusses. And it’s not just what Sandberg doesn’t mention much: that women dominate the lowest-paid, least-protected sectors, such as retail and home health care. It’s that virtually all workers, regardless of gender, have come to adopt the most mewling of feminine traits.

What neoliberal economists call labor-market “flexibility” (read: union busting and regulation relaxing) has produced a worker who feels that she — or he — has to eat any shitty wages or conditions dished out and thank the boss for the lovely meal.

“Flexibility doesn’t just manifest itself in global economic trends. It has now become a central part of the office worker’s performance,” writes Oxford fellow Madeleine Schwartz in a smart piece in Dissent, a politics and culture quarterly. “The behavioral characteristics demanded by an uncertain office are ones traditionally associated with women — flexibility, submission, gratitude.”

Schwartz likens this ethos to the popular view of housework before feminism. Not only were you waxing the kitchen floors and wiping the babies’ butts, you were happy and fulfilled doing it!

Workers can hardly be blamed for what looks like voluntary abjection. The corporation’s flexibility creates what Guy Standing, a University of London professor of development studies, calls growing “precarity” for workers globally. And an economy of part-timers, freelancers, independent contractors, unpaid interns and perma-temps is not one that rewards the individual boldness Sandberg prescribes.

On Lean In’s publication date earlier this month, I happened to receive a far more enlightening book in which stories of lost jobs, homes and savings painfully illustrate the ways this economy erodes personal self-respect and hope. In Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession, author Barbara Garson meets, among others, a father and son in Evansville, Ind., where Whirlpool is laying off everyone. The father has worked for a big-box store for 24 years, only to find his loyalty rewarded with 13-hour night shifts — more work at effectively lower wages. His son is making do with on-again off-again telemarketing gigs.

The father finds solace in religion and secretly blames himself for the slide of his fortunes. The son adapts to his narrowing prospects with a “hippie ethic” that eschews status and money. Still, he holds up as the pinnacle of success his “brilliant” friend, who has held a machine-shop job for two years and is earning enough to pay the rent and buy a car and insurance. Both men have hewed their dreams to what they think they can get.

If working people are not “leaning in,” it’s because they’re so far out on the precipice, they fear moving a muscle will propel them over the edge.

The good news is that, far from the C-suite — in, say, Vermont’s daycare centers, New York’s fast-food joints and Walmarts across the country — people who wouldn’t stand a chance standing up for themselves alone are leaning not exactly in but rather on each other. In fact, some find that making a lot of Sandbergian personal-ambitious noise — the kind of noise that is associated with masculine ways of getting ahead — is precisely what can cripple progress for the group and thus for the individuals in it.

In a heartrending piece also published recently in Dissent, the pseudonymous writer “JOMO” recounts a union-organizing drive at an unnamed nursing home by certified nursing assistants. CNAs are the people who heft, feed and change the diapers of the institutionalized old and disabled. JOMO describes the mutual aid of these workers — almost exclusively immigrant women of color — as they struggle to care patiently and empathically for the residents while maintaining their own dignity and health against stress, monotony and racist insult. They earn about $10 an hour.

When a new supervisor changes staffing ratios in a way that gives the CNAs more clients to care for in the same amount of time, JOMO and her coworkers have had enough. They petition against the speedup, and are rebuffed. “If you form a union,” they’re told, “we will have no choice but to fire all of you.”

The CNAs complain to the National Labor Relations Board and seek the help of the Industrial Workers of the World. According to JOMO, management responds by spreading rumors about her, fomenting racially tinged resentments and rewarding snitches with raises and better shifts. Division conquers. The campaign fails.

One of the lessons JOMO gleans from the failure is that “I personally became too obvious as a leader and target.” The collective voice, she realizes, would have been stronger in chorus than represented by a solo aria, no matter how impassioned or articulate. But she believes the chorus hasn’t been silenced — because the prize is too compelling: justice for the caregivers and, equally important, more bearable lives and deaths for the elderly residents.

It’s not enough for women to advance their careers. There’s no evidence of what Lean In suggests — that women at the top improve things for women, or anyone, at the bottom. The nursing-home supervisor was a woman. And it’s not enough just to lean in. It matters what and whom you’re leaning toward.

“Poli Psy” is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact

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Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.


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