Did you hear? Sheryl Sandberg is cancelled. She is being dragged through the headlines by the same media circus who put her on a pedestal, and now it’s time for her to be officially tipped off her perch. It’s no real shock, her brand of Corporate Feminism has been controversial for years, and public shaming on the Internet has almost become a sport – especially if it is a powerful woman at the top of any ladder. The sad thing is, this public heralding and then merciless dragging sends the same message to all women over and over: don’t get too powerful, don’t get too above your station – we will find a way to make you unpopular again.
Back in 2010, Sandberg delivered a powerful talk at TED Women, which has to date garnered almost nine million views. I remember when I first watched it (I was 20 then) and remember this bit where she talks about how there were no female toilets in a building she worked in. No one had noticed and until Sheryl had asked where the ladies loos were. She said: “Are you telling me that I am the only woman to have pitched a deal in this office in a year?” In 2013, she published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, holding the number one position for a hardcover sales on The New York Times bestseller list; it sold 4.2 million copies worldwide according to The New York Times, 77% of Amazon reviewers at the time gave it five stars and even Oprah gave it a glowing endorsement. People, mostly, liked it.
This concept of Leaning In, at the time, was a new suggestion with good intentions. I gobbled it up in one sitting, and felt excited learning from a woman who had “leaned it” and elbowed her way into a male-dominated world. She was using her experience and knowledge to tell young women to ask for more, pulling up a chair, making yourself heard, saying ‘I’ll do it!” when no one was looking your way in a meeting.
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Five years on from the publication of Lean In, thankfully, a lot has changed – or, at least, the narrative around feminism in the workplace has changed. Of course Lean In was never enough. (Michelle Obama literally said on her recent book tour: “it’s not always enough to lean in.”) Most fans of Lean In later realised that you can’t always just raise your hand and get a new job or promotion, when deeper systemic issues still exist. Lean In highlighted huge gaping holes and Sandberg had many blind points, such as ignoring many of the issues women of colour face in life and at work. The book did something though: it started a conversation, and showed that ‘corporate feminism’ i.e. privileged white women talking about feminism on panels wasn’t going to solve much if it didn’t look to solve the problems of all women at all intersections of society. We learned something from Sheryl Sandberg’s mistakes. Criticism helps move bigger conversations forward.
All works of literature will one day become outdated. Sandberg’s life has also changed in the time passed since Lean In. In the book there is a chapter called ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner’ all about making your career work in a couple. Tragically, Sandberg’s partner, Dave, died in 2015. In her second book, Option B, Sandberg actually unpicks and apologises on a number of occasions where she might have gone wrong with some elements of Lean In. Where was her support of single mothers? Women who didn’t want to work alongside small children? Less privileged women? She questions and ruminates on these things herself. We all grow and learn and change.
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Why are we so quick to ‘cancel’ someone instead of having an ongoing dialogue? Why are we so quick to call something a ‘scam’ when it no longer serves us? The language to describe Sandberg’s ‘fall’ in the media is interesting. As she embroiled in yet another Facebook scandal, think-pieces are being published thick and fast. The Guardian said: “it would appear that capitalism’s favourite feminist has finally fallen from grace”. A story on BBC News has the headline: “How The Star Of Sheryl Sandberg Dimmed”.
Interesting how Mark Zuckerberg is not treated in this way, even though he has more responsibility in these scandals than Sandberg. But the focus on him is more around his monetary loss, and CNN describe him as “standing his ground”, Forbes believes Zuckerberg “can get back on track”, and Vanity Fair says Zuckerberg “is done apologising”. It feels as though men are more easily forgiven than when a woman messes up.
Right now, I would definitely spend my cash on supporting the inspirational modern career book like Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, than go and buy a corporate tome like Lean In. But at the time, Lean In was something that needed to be said; back then it had its own value and it was coming from a woman of the Gen X/Baby Boomer generation who had no choice but to (at the time) lean in to her situation. Five years ago, it inspired many women to speak up. Now the narrative has deepened and we know more. Maybe Sheryl Sandberg should indeed start to Lean Out, and pass the mic to other women, but that doesn’t mean totally dismissing all the work she’s done up until now.
Sure, Lean In; is outdated. But it is not a scam. Feminist books are always going to be outdated as we move forward. Because (we hope!) that talking about feminism itself will one day be outdated.
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