The backlash against Sheryl Sandberg’s business advice book, Lean In, began before it was even published in March 2013. Critics blanched at the idea of a super-rich, two-time ivy-league graduate dispensing advice to women hoping to climb the corporate ladder—implying that any woman can “have it all” if she asserts herself more.
In her debut book, Lean Out, political, social affairs, and economics correspondent for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Dawn Foster, summarizes the criticism that has been levied against Sandberg and throws in a heavy complement of her own. Foster writes,
Lean In points all blame inward, and ignores structural inequality. There’s no acknowledgment that ambition is a moot point when inequality remains so entrenched in modern society. A woman working as a receptionist in a small business can aspire to be a chief executive of a high-street bank all she wants, but without a stellar education and the attendant social connections high-ranking universities furnish alumni with, she may as well aspire to be a unicorn for all the good it will do.
As Foster notes, Lean In was heralded in some sectors as a watershed moment in the feminist movement. But for all its popularity, Lean In proposed a model of feminism that was individualistic and unthreatening to the status quo.
Foster looks at the rise of a corporate “1% feminism,” and at how feminism has been defanged and depoliticised at a time when women have borne the brunt of the financial crash and the gap between rich and poor is widening faster than ever.
Surveying business, media, culture and politics, Foster asks whether this “trickledown” feminism offers any material gain for women collectively, or acts as window-dressing PR for the corporations who caused the financial crash. Foster is particularly galled by reports that the hiring and advancement of women at Sandberg’s own corporation, Facebook, does not live up to Sandberg’s rhetoric.
Foster suggests that “leaning out” of the corporate model is a more effective way of securing change than leaning in. She notes, for example, that “Sandberg’s corporate feminism doesn’t extend to calling for collective rights for women such as state maternity pay, or a stronger welfare safety net, or even encouraging women to unionize.”
For Foster, leaning out also involves refusing to act in ways normalized by a patriarchal system. “Sandberg never envisages an image of a woman as anything other than a worker, or a wife and mother.” As an alternative, Foster sites several recent cases of women in the UK banding together to strengthen the safety net for poor families through innovative social campaigns.
The reduction of feminism to individual women’s choices, often bound up in consumer culture, stymies attempts to move the critical lens from women’s collective position in society. This tallies with Sandberg’s central premise: that women’s behavior, rather than patriarchal power structures in work and society, is what causes gender inequality and is holding women back.
About the author
Dawn Foster is a journalist who writes on social affairs, politics and economics. Dawn is a columnist for the Guardian and the Independent newspapers, former deputy features editor of Inside Housing and former editor of Sustainable Housing magazine.
Dawn is a regular contributor to the Guardian, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New Humanist, and regularly appears as a political commentator on BBC’s “Newsnight,” Channel 4 News and Sky News.
On-sale: January 19, 2015
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