Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins from Leaning in?

Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins from Leaning in?

In her time at Facebook, Losse saw the ideas behind Lean In take root. The book’s goals become legible when understood to be as informed by Silicon Valley business tactics as by feminism. What exactly are we leaning into?


Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In isn’t the first social movement spearheaded by a Facebook executive. “Together we are starting a movement,” announced Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s 2007 F8 conference. Zuckerberg’s movement turned out to be the “Facebook platform,” a technology that allows developers to build third-party applications to operate within Facebook, a “revolutionary” innovation to bring hackers into the Facebook fold. But like users, anyone developing for Facebook must scramble to adjust whenever Facebook makes changes. On Zuckerberg’s model, social movements are a top-down method of change. Revolutions are a mode of “disruption” from above that ensures greater leverage for those in power.

Six years later, Sheryl Sandberg, also a Facebook executive, is starting another social movement with her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In a neat division of executive labor that mirrors her domain within the company—Sandberg runs the people and business side of Facebook, while Zuckerberg runs product development—Sandberg imagines herself leading a feminist “movement” of working women just as Zuckerberg claims to lead software developers. With offices in Palo Alto and funding provided by Sandberg’s lucrative and ongoing investment in Facebook, Lean In bears more in common with a well-funded Silicon Valley startup than a grassroots feminist organization. This parallel is central to understanding what Lean In is trying to accomplish.

The question then is: how is it that Facebook, a company primarily interested in technical development, came in 2013 to need a feminist platform?

By reading Lean In as a book informed as much by Silicon Valley business tactics and Sandberg’s Facebook investments as it is by feminism, Lean In becomes legible as a product with strongly corporate and technocratic as well as feminist ambitions. Because while Lean In is technically separate from Facebook, it is supported by Facebook in ways ranging from Zuckerberg’s book jacket endorsement to the fact that Facebook provided Sandberg with time to write and complete an intense publicity tour for the book while serving as COO. The question then is: how is it that Facebook, a company primarily interested in technical development, came in 2013 to need a feminist platform? And now that its COO has launched one, how does Lean In aim to transform the world?

I worked at Facebook from 2005 to 2010 in a series of roles culminating in a position as Zuckerberg’s speechwriter, and had an opportunity to observe the development of Facebook both as a social media platform and as what it increasingly aims to become: a global leader on par with nations. “Companies over countries,” Zuckerberg often said in meetings. “If you want to change the world, the best thing to do is start a company.” Thinking about it, I could see how this could work out: companies have potentially more money and fewer structuring rules than countries, while countries remain a respected model of social organization to which citizens feel loyalty. This latter connotation accounts for why Facebook often describes itself in national terms with phrasing like “Facebook nation” and user figures announced in relation to countries’ populations. In some ways, Facebook wants to be a company and a country, commanding the best powers of both.

As a company built on the model of a country, then, Facebook needs not just a technical but a sociopolitical presence, and this is where Sandberg came in circa 2008. Having worked for the Treasury Department before Google, Sandberg’s career is both political and technical. After being hired as Facebook COO she continued to work in both modes, managing Facebook operations while hosting dinners at home for female luminaries, including political figures such as Meg Whitman. Sandberg’s women’s networking operations were touted by Facebook as an important asset to the company. The leadership must have sensed that to a national audience, being an unabashed boys club could hurt its coveted status as most “innovative” young company. From my position sitting next to Sandberg, I was able to watch as Sandberg’s reputation beyond the Valley gathered momentum and Facebook began to benefit from her public profile as well as her internal leadership.

If resistance to working harder is the problem, then it follows that work is a solution. Work will save us; but, the reader may be asking, from what?

Lean In begins with an introduction called “Internalizing the Revolution,” and like Zuckerberg’s 2007 F8 speech it aims to redefine what revolution means. Sandberg’s revolution is not asking corporations to renovate their operations to eliminate sexism. Rather, revolution in Lean In is a battle to restructure the self. “Throughout my life, I was told over and over about inequalities in the workplace and how hard it would be to have a career and a family. I rarely heard anything about the ways I might hold myself back.” Sandberg details the ways in which she was insecure or afraid during her career rise, arguing that other women should learn from her mistakes and assert themselves. (Though if the proof of the pudding is that Sandberg became a COO in a man’s world, we may question how much her self-deprecation helped to minimize any threat that her success posed to men.) Lean In’s goal is to push women forward into their work so as to overcome what Sandberg represents as women’s universal internal resistance to career velocity.

Sandberg’s language in this chapter, while directed at women, recalls and even replicates the language deployed at Facebook to push its employees to work harder. At Facebook, the offices are festooned with posters that read things like “Be Bold,” “Move fast and break things,” “Done is better than perfect,” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Facebook’s corporate imperative to move quickly and gain influence over more people, figured in a Formula One vocabulary of speed and victory, is repeated in Sandberg’s writing. “When more people get in the race, more records will be broken,” and, “Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep your foot on the gas pedal.”

Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.

Sandberg assumes that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?

If resistance to working harder is the problem, then it follows that work, in Sandberg’s book, is a solution. Work will save us; but, the reader may be asking, from what? By taking note of the forms of human activity that do not appear in Lean In, we see that what work will save us from is not-work: pleasure and other nonproductive pastimes. “Framing the issue as work-life balance—as if the two were diametrically opposed—almost ensures that work will lose out,” Sandberg writes. In response to the threat of work losing out, she goes on to outline how one transforms one’s life entirely into work. There is no not-work, or pleasure, in Lean In. Aside from the possibility of having better sex with one’s husband after he has assisted with household chores (work makes everything better, including sex!), Sandberg does not mention pleasure. Sandberg assumes instead that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?

Take Sandberg’s perspective on the family.  A successful working mother on the Sandberg model awakes at 5:00 a.m. to answer emails before preparing kids for school, returns home for dinner with her kids (which, like her job, is a duty the mother has to be promptly on time for), and then gets back into her email. “Once he was down at night, I would jump back on my computer and continue my workday,” she writes, acknowledging the fact that, by Silicon Valley’s own hand, “technology has extended the weekday.”

At this point in the text, what could become a critique of the new economy’s round-the-clock work imperative becomes its opposite: resignation to work’s all-consuming nature. “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

For someone with fewer family demands than Sandberg, freedom is depicted not as a pleasure but a problem to be resolved by getting a family. The single woman goes out to a bar goes not to have fun or be with friends (the main reason most women I know attend a bar), but to find a husband with whom to procreate. “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight…because going to a party is the only way I might meet someone and start a family!” Astonishingly for a book published in 2013, there are no self-identified lesbians, gay men, or even intentionally unmarried or child-free people in Lean In’s vision of the workplace. It’s not clear why Sandberg thinks that everyone should be in the business of getting a family, since the book argues that family gets in the way of work. But it seems that Sandberg can only imagine the dreaded “leaning back” as a product of family demands. Who would take a vacation voluntarily?

Life, in Sandberg’s vision of work, has gone entirely missing, at the linguistic as well as the polemical level. Except, of course, when one is at work. “I fully believe in bringing our whole selves to work,” Sandberg writes. Since her vision of work involves working all the time, it follows that work must be the place where one can be one’s full self.

Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Where other feminists focus on articulating the amount of free or underpaid labor that women do, Sandberg places a priceless value on labor itself and encourages more of it, whether paid, unpaid, or poorly paid. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat,” she says, quoting advice she received from Google executive Eric Schmidt.

Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

“Don’t ask,” here, strikes a revealing tension in a book that tells women to be more assertive, albeit “with great care.” Put into practice, the advice not to question what position one will hold in a company can easily amount to acceptance of a devalued position with long-term career consequences. But this is a problem Sandberg may not know about, because it doesn’t happen to someone whose career has been defined by jumps from one high-level position to another. (In the Valley, poaching high-ranking executives from rival companies is a sport and brings with it the possibility of negotiating compensation upward or even, in Sandberg’s case, being allowed to “buy in” to Facebook at a level far exceeding her equity package.)

Unlike Sandberg, most women who work in tech startups do not have seats in the front of the rocket ship. Women in tech are much more likely to be hired in support functions where they are paid a bare minimum, given tiny equity grants compared to engineers and executives, and given raises on the order of fifty cents an hour rather than thousands of dollars. According to Sandberg’s advice, these situations iron themselves out when you are on a rocket ship: women are promoted and their positions naturally improve. “What difference does going ‘back’ four years [in title and compensation] really make?” Sandberg writes of one woman asked to start on the ground level. But what if women, even in a company like Facebook, are still paying a gender penalty that nothing but conscious, structural transformation can cure?

I came up against such a penalty in my career at Facebook, which spanned from customer support to international product management to Zuckerberg’s writer: in late 2008, after working my way up from the support team to product management in the engineering sector, I was promoted to a more demanding managerial position. But there would be no raise. “You’ve already doubled your salary in a year and it wouldn’t be fair to the engineers who haven’t had that raise” (never mind that a year earlier engineers had been earning anywhere from $70,000 to $140,000, as opposed to $38,000 like I had). Far from being equitable, the concept of fairness was being deployed to explain why I needed to work for less so men wouldn’t feel resentful, as if my rapid career rise posed a threat to them, which it didn’t. At Facebook of all places, there was plenty of money and career growth to go around. If this kind of salary containment was happening to women there, I can only imagine what justifications are used in less cash-flush companies to level women’s salaries downward.

Leaning in, then, starts to look like it can benefit companies more than it benefits workers, if companies refuse to commit to equitable pay.

”More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women,” Sandberg writes, though she was already working at Facebook when I experienced this particular gender penalty. In the narrative Sandberg provides, the situation I experienced wouldn’t have happened. But the fact that it did provides anecdotal clues as to why Lean In focuses on the problem it does: women’s presumed resistance to their careers rather than companies’ resistance to equal pay. Why not focus on renovating the pay structure so that women aren’t denied raises in order to make male peers more comfortable? The faster my career accelerated at Facebook, the more my financial returns diminished, until my workload was being elevated but not my salary or equity. Leaning in, then, starts to look like it can benefit companies more than it benefits workers, if companies, while asking that their women employees “lean in,” refuse to commit to equitable pay.

This is where Sandberg’s acknowledged investment in Facebook goes a long way toward explaining Lean In’s feminism. While Sandberg’s encouragement of women is motivational as far as it goes, she also makes an explicit and acknowledged choice not to go farther. And since Sandberg as an individual feminist has no obvious reason to limit her feminism to transforming women’s individual attitudes, we must ask: does the corporation that Sandberg leads and in which she is invested have an interest in limiting feminism in this way?

It is well-known that Facebook clones small apps and rolls them out to Facebook’s broad user base when an outside app becomes threatening to Facebook’s business model. Given that strategy, it’s not hard to see how Facebook may want to incubate its own feminist movement in order to prevent a more activist and transformative feminism from affecting Facebook’s business. Just as with any of Facebook’s competitive moves, the need to create an in-house version of a product arises due to an external threat. And put very simply, feminism is a threat to Facebook, just as Instagram or Snapchat were threats to Facebook’s photo-sharing business.

Facebook is vulnerable to feminist critique on a number of levels: from Facebook’s all-male board up until 2012, to the lopsided distribution of genders (and compensation) across its departments, to the way women’s images drive the site itself, where the most popular content has always been intimate, personal photographs of women. Sandberg’s book, very strategically, makes no mention of feminist critiques of Facebook, and instead imagines a feminist platform where women’s problems with undercompensation and sexism lie in women themselves, thus negating the need to change Facebook’s operations. In this way Sandberg is able to deploy Facebook’s oft-used tactic of building an in-house version of a competitive product, a move traditionally deployed against apps, against competing feminisms.

The media story around my book became a story about how Sandberg ended sexism at Facebook, though that’s not the story my book tells.

In 2012 I wrote a book, The Boy Kings, that told another story, about the ways in which women have built and funded and otherwise tended to Facebook’s social media empire. The story challenges Facebook’s sense of itself as an empire built solely on hacking.  The word “hack” is inlaid on a huge scale in the Facebook courtyard and Zuckerberg’s IPO letter stated that “hacker culture is extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win.” He went on to discuss what Facebook looks for in its engineers, mostly men, who are only a fraction of the company’s workforce. As I was writing the book, other gendered criticisms were surfacing, such as a protest by women’s rights activists advocating for a female presence on the Facebook board. “This is a company that’s growing off the backs of women, who are the future of social networks and the tech industry,” startup founder Nita Choudhary said to the social media industry blog Mashable. The New Yorker quoted Zuckerberg the year before saying, “We have a very small board and I don’t particularly care what gender they are, I’m not filling the board with checkboxes.” But the company promoted Sandberg to the Facebook board the day before Boy Kings was published. Sandberg along with many other business women had been qualified to be a board member for years.

As a result, the media story around my book became a story about how Sandberg ended sexism at Facebook, though that’s not the story my book tells. Now, with Sandberg’s Lean In, we have a book that tells the story that she and Facebook want to tell about sexism: women can solve it themselves by working harder. This story works in the first instance to supplant a more structural feminist critique of the workplace, but beyond that it promotes Facebook as a cutting-edge work environment where men and women are encouraged to work “harder better faster stronger” in support of the company’s domination and success.

The loser in the Lean In vision of work isn’t one version of feminism or another—other feminist organizations and publications will continue to flourish alongside Lean In, though they may receive less media attention—but uncapitalized, unmonetized life itself. Just as Facebook relies on users to faithfully upload their data to drive site growth, Facebook relies on its employees to devote ever greater time to growing Facebook’s empire.

The loser in the Lean In vision of work isn’t one version of feminism or another, but uncapitalized, unmonetized life itself.

The fact that Lean In is really waging a battle for work and against unmonetized life is the reason pregnancy, or the state of reproducing life, looms as the corporate Battle of Normandy in Lean In. Pregnancy, by virtue of the body’s physical focus on human reproduction, is humanity’s last, biological stand against the corporate demand for workers’ continuous labor. For Sandberg, pregnancy must be converted into a corporate opportunity: a moment to convince a woman to commit further to her job. Human life as a competitor to work is the threat here, and it must be captured for corporate use, much in the way that Facebook treats users’ personal activities as a series of opportunities to fill out the Facebook-owned social graph.

By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the workplace without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them. And by launching a feminist platform, Sandberg is able to contain the broader threat that a feminist critique poses to Facebook’s business, simultaneously generating more power for herself and her organization — Silicon Valley “revolution” at its finest. This maneuver, as I learned in my years at Facebook, is how the game is played, and both Sandberg and Zuckerberg play it well. The question the rest of us have to ask is, what does the game do for those not at or near the top? Are workers playing or are we getting played?

By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the workplace without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.

Lean In posits that some women can be players, and its instructions will be valuable to those who perform the endless work and self-monitoring that Sandberg advises. I was one of those women, and after several years of nonstop work, unused vacation time, and shrewd self-positioning, I made it from the back of the rocket ship all the way to the front, where I sat next to Sandberg and Zuckerberg at the privileged center of Facebook’s operations. I was invited to Sandberg’s “Women of Silicon Valley” dinners, where high-powered women ate hors d’oeuvres and networked. These women were “in,” and Lean In suggests that if you work hard enough, you can be too.

I decided to leave Facebook because I saw ahead of me, by Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s own hands, an unending race of pure ambition, where no amount of money or power is enough and work is forever. While I am not unambitious, this wasn’t my ambition. But Sandberg is betting that for some women, as for herself, the pursuit of corporate power is desirable, and that many women will ramp up their labor ever further in hopes that one day they, too, will be “in.” And whether or not those women make it, the companies they work for will profit by their unceasing labor.

Will the the workplace be fairer as a result of some women being “in”? For all of its sincere encouragement of individual women, Sandberg’s book does not indicate that her leadership has created deep changes at Facebook, or how deep changes might occur at the companies that she hopes women will run. Since, like any boss, she focuses on pushing women to work harder, it’s hard to see why she would use her position to effect systemic change.

And so, in the end, Lean In may be a book not about a social movement, but about Sandberg’s own movement from Harvard to Google to Facebook, and now into her self-appointed role as leader of Lean In. The book advocates “lean in” circles for women in corporate environments. The circles are now being advocated by the book’s corporate partners like American Express, Amazon, and Bain, with her book as their guide. As memoir, it is instructive regarding Sandberg’s successful career trajectory, and provides some helpful advice for young women in how to follow her. But as a manual for navigating the workplace, it teaches women more about how to serve their companies than it teaches companies about how to be fairer places for women to work.

Kate Losse writes about the culture of technology and is the author of the 2012 memoir The Boy Kings, a book about her time working at Facebook.

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