Over the course of this year Sheryl Sandberg, the 44 year old Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has enjoyed ever greater media attention since launching her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. It has sold over a million copies, dominating best seller lists and leading many commentators in the mainstream media to present her as the most influential feminist voice of her era. Though her ‘co-writer’ has received much less attention. Unsurprisingly, she has done a TED talk on the themes of the book:
It would be inaccurate to describe Sandberg’s rise as anything other than meteoric. She’s reported to be worth almost half a billon dollars. She’s a corporate high flyer, best-selling author and is “widely presumed to have future political ambitions”. Yet she’s also been the subject of much criticism. In a thoughtful yet polemic essay discussing Sandberg, bell hooks distances herself from some of the more vitriolic attacks on the Facebook COO, while nonetheless sustaining a powerful critique:
Certainly, her vision of individual women leaning in at the corporate table does not include any clear statements of which group of women she is speaking to and about, and the “lean in” woman is never given a racial identity. If Sandberg had acknowledged that she was primarily addressing privileged white women like herself (a small group working at the top of the corporate hierarchy), then she could not have portrayed herself as sharing a message, indeed a life lesson, for all women. Her basic insistence that gender equality should be important to all women and men is an insight that all folks involved in feminist movement agree is a central agenda. And yes, who can dispute the facts Sandberg offers as evidence; despite the many gains in female freedom, implicit gender bias remains the norm throughout our society. Patriarchy supports and affirms that bias. But Sandberg offers readers no understanding of what men must do to unlearn sexist thinking. At no point In Lean In does she let readers know what would motivate patriarchal white males in a corporate environment to change their belief system or the structures that support gender inequality […]
Unfortunately her voice is powerful, yet Sandberg is for the most part not voicing any new ideas. She is simply taking old ideas and giving them a new twist. When the book Lean In began its meteoric rise, which continues to bring fame and notoriety to Sandberg, many prominent feminists and/or progressive women denounced the work, vehemently castigating Sandberg. However, there was just one problematic issue at the core of the anti-Sandberg movement; very few folks attacking the work had actually read the book. Some of them had heard sound bites on television or had listened to her Ted Talk presentation. Still others had seen her interviewed. Many of these older female feminist advocates blatantly denounced the work and boldly announced their refusal to read the book.
As a feminist cultural critic, I found the eagerness with which Sandberg was viciously attacked disheartening. These critiques seem to emerge from misplaced rage not based solely on contempt for her ideas, but a rage bordering on envy. The powerful white male-dominated mass media was giving her and those ideas so much attention. There was no in-depth discussion of why this was the case. In the book Sandberg reminds readers that, “men still run the world.” However, she does not discuss white male supremacy. Or the extent to which globalization has changed the makeup of corporate elites. In Mark Mizruchi’s book The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, he describes a corporate world that is made up of a “more diverse crowd,” one that is no longer white and male “blue chip dudes.” He highlights several examples: “The CEO of Coca-Cola is Muhtar Kent, who was born in the United States but raised in Turkey; PepsiCo is run by Indra Nooyi, an Indian woman who came to America in her twenties. Burger King’s CEO is Brazilian, Chryslers’s CEO is Italian, and Morgan Stanley’s CEO is Australian. Forget about influencing policy; many of today’s leading US CEO’s can’t even vote here.” Perhaps, even in the corporate world, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is ready to accept as many white women as necessary to ensure white dominance. Race is certainly an invisible category in Sandberg’s corporate fantasy world.
She makes light of her ambivalence towards feminism. Even though Sandberg can humorously poke fun at herself and her relationship to feminism, she tells readers that her book “is not a feminist manifesto.” Adding as though she is in a friendly conversation with herself, “okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto.” This is just one of the “funny” folksy moments in the book, which represent her plain and ordinary approach – she is just one of the girls. Maybe doing the book and talking about it with co-writer Nell Scovell provides the basis for the conversational tone. Good humor aside, cute quips and all, it is when she is taking about feminism that many readers would have liked her to go deeper. How about just explaining what she means by “feminist manifesto,” since the word implies “a full public declaration of intentions, opinions or purposes.” Of course, historically the best feminist manifestos emerged from collective consciousness raising and discussion. They were not the voice of one individual. Instead of creating a space of female solidarity, Sandberg exists as the lone queen amid millions of admires. And no one in her group dares to question how she could be heralded as the “voice of revolutionary feminism.”
How feminist, how revolutionary can a powerful rich woman be when she playfully admits that she concedes all money management and bill paying to her husband? As Sandberg confesses, she would rather not think about money matters when she could be planning little Dora parties for her kids. This anecdote, like many others in the book, works to create the personal image of Sandberg. It is this “just plain folks” image that has been instrumental in her success, for it shows her as vulnerable.
This is not her only strategy. When giving filmed lectures, she wears clothes with sexy deep V-necks and stiletto heels and this image creates the aura of vulnerable femininity. It reminds one of the popular television advertisement from years ago wherein a sexy white woman comes home and dances around singing: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let you forget you’re a man…cause I’m a w-o-m-a-n!” Sandberg’s constructed image is not your usual sexist misogynist media portrayal of a feminist. She is never depicted as a man-hating ball-busting feminist nag.
Instead, she comes across both in her book and when performing on stages as a lovable younger sister who just wants to play on the big brother’s team. It would be more in keeping with this image to call her brand of women’s liberation faux feminism. A billionaire, one of the richest women in the world, Sandberg deflects attention from this reality. To personify it might raise critical questions. It might even have created the conditions for other women to feel threatened by her success. She solves that little problem by never speaking of money in Lean In; she uses the word once.
Categories: Rethinking The World