Lean In, or Fall Back: How Much Do You Pay Your Help, Sandburg?

Cornelia Beckett ’14
Opinions Editor

Unlike the new “boss of feminism,” Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook, I’m going to give credit where credit is due. First: Nell Scovell, the ghostwriter who actually wrote “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” Secondly, Dr. bell hooks, who pointed out in a brilliant piece called “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” for The Feminist Wire, many feminists who criticize Sheryl Sandburg haven’t read the book. I read the book, and I read the criticisms about how out-of-touch, elitist and neoliberal Sandburg is, so I’ve decided to attack her in the grand tradition of women tearing down other women.

First: Hey, Nell. You created the classic TV show “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” so you know quite a bit about women, power, fantasy and wish fulfillment. Thanks for taking the time to actually write this book. Sheryl thanks you in her acknowledgements for taking a break “from work as a television writer/producer and journalist to make this a priority.” You put in “nights, early mornings, weekends and holidays” to ghostwrite this, which, incidentally, are the times that Sandburg says working women should take for themselves and their families. This is a classic subtle Sandburg flip-flop. Just like the idea that stay at home moms are setting back feminism… but they’re making a noble choice…but they’re scary and make her feel bad about herself. My stay-at-home mom raised me, Sheryl, and I turned out pretty okay. In this critique, I’d like to explore the discovered (and undiscovered) fallacies that Sandburg perpetuates.

1. Choosing a partner is the most important career decision a young woman can make.

Assuming we career gals can find partners -the unspoken, ideal affluent white men, I’m assuming- divorce is never mentioned. Single moms and queer parents might as well not exist, per this book. When Sandburg and her second hubby had marital issues when their son was born, “[they] hired a nanny, but she couldn’t solve all [of the] problems.” I’ve been a caregiver since I was 12 years old, and our job is to raise your children, not solve your problems.

2. Rely on your friends and family.

I’m surprised they didn’t call this book “Lean On,” because that’s literally what Sandburg suggests that working women do. In a rare moment of privilege clarity, Ms. COO admits “I’m far luckier than most,” then admits in parentheses “not all people are close to their family, geographically or emotionally. Fortunately, friends can be leaned on to provide this kind of support for each other.” Cool. Lean on your less successful friends and family. One could also hire a nanny at a living wage, paid above the table, perhaps.

Sandburg barely mentions that crucial element of familial support, but she does have a few other anecdotes that reveal her career privilege and out-of-touch affect. There was the time she and her kids hitched a ride on a friend’s private plane, or the frequent occurences when she brings the little darlings into the office. In magical Facebook office-land, “Mark” will let them eat pizza and even “[teach]… kids various office pranks, which [is] slightly less adorable.” Is this an ideal man, like the supportive partner a woman is supposed to find? A man-child boss like Mark Zuckerberg, messing around in the office while the women stay overtime without adequate childcare?

3. Don’t seek out a mentor, but if you get one, Larry Summers is ideal.

Sandburg complains that she’s inundated with young women looking for mentors. She urges them, instead, to work really hard and wait for someone like her to swoop in and advise. If only it worked like that in the real world. Fortunately, her mentor was Larry “women can’t do math” Summers. But he did get her a job in the Treasury Department during the Clinton Administration.! Maybe if she and her allegedly progressive friends had stayed in Washington, not decamped to Silicon Valley to become billionaires, we might have support systems like paid maternity leave, state-run free childcare and a mandated living wage–those things so essential to the fulfilled feminist life that a “lean in” woman is supposed to have.

4. Dr. Peggy McIntosh is an expert on fraud moreso than privilege.

Sandburg said at her Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, Dr. McIntosh gave a speech to the women of Radcliffe about “feeling like a fraud.” Feeling like a fraud for being in a position of power or prestige is a real issue, especially for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups who have been taught not to feel that they “deserve” success. Dr. McIntosh also wrote the 1990 article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and if not coined, successfully circulated the terms “white privilege” and “male privilege.” This is a far more salient lens and vocabulary through which to examine the Sandburg goal of running the world. Because even when women run the world, as bell hooks points out, the embedded hierarchy stays the same, except with expectant mother parking spaces tacked on the outside of the office–one of Sandburg’s examples of “external” progress.

Women’s domestic labor that makes Sandburg’s work possible is just as honorable as her corporate ambition. Sheryl, I hope you pay your nannies well. To “lean in” in the corporate world as Sanburg urges us to do, is an action alone. But when working women eschew jargon, organize and fall back in a circle of solidarity, we move together.

Leave a Comment