Sunday, October 22, 2017

#LeanIn – Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead attempts to take steps towards equalizing the gender disparity that exists in top level professional positions, as well as positions of power in general. She asserts that focusing on the "internal barriers" (e.g. internalized feminized passivity), as opposed to the "external barriers" (e.g. institutional forms of oppression) is crucial in order for women to gain power.

Sandberg's main solution is a simple matter of women "leaning in," which entails women shed their negative gendered image as timid and un-efficacious subjects. Instead, become more assertive and determined in their pursuits. Although I see the merit in Sheryl Sandberg's philosophy, her narrow and problematic conception of gender must be refined if her proposal is to become more feasible.

Before delving into what I consider the problematic aspect of her suggestion, I should give a positive account of what her theory would look like in practice. Sandberg is specifically addressing the issue of gender inequalities within the professional world. She expresses  this inequality as a function of the various sets of barriers that women continually face when attempting to move up in the professional world.

Consequently, for Sandberg, the issue becomes a matter of identifying what those barriers are and how women should approach the issue of tearing them down. Sandberg dichotomizes the barriers into external and internal barriers. The external barriers, as understood by Sandberg, are those which present significant difficulties that are not in the control of the individual, erected by society.

The internal barriers are the internalized negative messages that women are bombarded with during their formative years. These messages confer upon women the normative notion that they should not be assertive, aggressive, outspoken, or more successful than men. As a result, women are conditioned to become less ambitious than men and to accept their inevitable subordination as second-class citizens – or so the story goes.

Sandberg primarily focuses on the internal barriers, because she believes that we can more easily dismantle these. Her reasoning seems to be as follows: given that institutional barriers are outside the control of a single individual, it might prove to be a more efficient method of instantiating social change by addressing issues which are immediately accessible and alterable (i.e. the internal psychological constitution of an individual).

The problem with this strategy is that Sandberg seems to problematically take for granted that gender is simply an ascribed property to an individual, that one has a free and unrestricted choice to enact. From the manner in which Sheryl Sandberg speaks of gendered behavior, in lines such as: "aggressive women violate the unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct;" "from the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently;" and "the gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives;" I infer that she is operating under the assumption that because gender is merely a social construction (and not an immutable biological reality), she believes that individuals can freely choose whether or not to enact their ascribed masculine or feminine properties.

The concern here then is that Sheryl Sandberg fails to recognize the complexity of how gender operates within our society, and the pervasiveness of it, in which individuals almost feel a compulsory response to enact a certain kind of gender. To put it more succinctly: the problematic aspect is not the claim that one should do gender differently, rather it is the supposition that one has the free range to do so.

In our heavily gendered society, our everyday interactions are instances of doing gender. More importantly, insofar as one does gender, one does not do gender individually, rather one performs gender by interacting with an equally well-versed individual who has the capacity to judge ones performance and hold the performer accountable for performing their gender correctly.

In this way, a structure of accountability is created which functions as a system of social control by way of reinforcing the notion of correct or proper gender performance. A corollary aspect of this social accountability structure is that the endeavor of doing gender then becomes both interactional and institutional. In other words, gender performance is not merely an individual enactment of gendered behavior, but rather it functions as a complex system of interrelations between individuals and institutional arrangements.

Consequently, one can see how Sheryl Sandberg's suggestion of "leaning in" is too individualistic to become a potential solution to the systemic problem of gender disparity in the professional field.

1 comment:

B. Williams said...

Glen... this is such a great post! Your analysis brings me back to "comfort strategies" and the idea of the 5th black woman. Just like there was a "proper" way for black women to perform as black women in the hypothetical law firm, there is a proper way for women to perform as women in the Facebook boardroom. But comfort strategies/proper performance in a Silicon valley boardroom look a lot different from comfort strategies in a minimum-wage fast-food job, or as a hotel cleaner, or as an in-home caregiver. Sheryl's strategy for leaning in might not only not help some women, it could actively hurt others.

I also critique Sheryl Sandberg's focus on putting the onus on women to fix the problem of discrimination against/sexism toward women in the workplace. While I am in favor of empowering women to take agency in their own professional lives, I agree that this strategy ignores the greater systemic oppression of women, the effect of other identities (race/class), and expectations of women in a variety of workplaces.