Inside Story

Feminism at the top table

Sara Dowse reviews Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

Sara Dowse 4 April 2013 2223 words

Sheryl Sandberg at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum last year. Moritz Hager/World Economic Forum

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg (with Nell Scovell) | WH Allen | $34.95

WOMEN have been rather squeamish about the f-word in recent years. It’s been the standard demur: “I’m not a feminist, but…” Then the speaker goes on to cite all the many feminist things she believes in: equality between the sexes, a woman’s right to choose, freedom from violence and assault, and so on and so forth. Sometime during the last decade the question of work–life balance has crept in but, as with all truly feminist objectives, the aim is to free up roles for men as well as for us. Misogyny, too, has cropped up, but with a slightly different meaning from what it once had. According to the Macquarie Dictionary, it’s not only a deep-seated hatred of women these days, but also a synonym for sexism – a word itself coined in the 1970s.

It’s been a truism, as well, that the feminist cause has been characterised (and hampered) by an apparent lack of historical continuity. The idea that feminism has come in distinct waves is contested, but what is undeniable is that the attention feminists receive in the wider society goes through periods of quiescence and efflorescence. In societies like ours and America’s, feminism’s duration has been short and progress uneven. Daphne Gollan, a lecturer in history at the Australian National University who was the doyen of the feminist reading group I belonged to in the 1970s and 80s, used often to remind us that while progress was interrupted from time to time, things never got as bad as they were during the last trough in the cycle.

Now, well into the new millennium, after years of “post-feminist” quiescence, just when second-wavers like me thought we were dead and buried as far as the general public was concerned, and when people might assume that with a female prime minister it is no longer even necessary, feminism is back. And while there’s a feeling of déjà vu for me in all this, an uneasy sense that here is a wheel we’d already invented, I can’t help rejoicing in this latter-day resurgence. Things are tough for women, not as tough as they once were, but clearly not as good as they should be.

Today’s most unlikely champion for women’s equality is Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, a position that signifies more than anything how things have changed in our brave new world. Sandberg’s career reads like an MBA textbook, or at least like those touted by outfits such as Saxton Speakers or on sites like 85 Broads or Alexandra Levit’s Water Cooler Wisdom, which head Forbes’s 2012 top blogs for women, or Sandberg’s own Lean In Community. After graduating from Harvard, she interned for Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, got her Harvard MBA, did stints at the World Bank and megalith global consultancy McKinsey, and then became chief of staff at the Treasury. From there it was to Google, as vice-president in charge of online sales and global operations, until Mark Zuckerberg picked her for his COO at Facebook. Her directorships of Disney, Facebook and ONE might come with the package, but her seats on the boards of Women for Women International and V-Day, and her chairing of her own organisation, Lean In, all with openly feminist agendas, may appear to fit a little less comfortably.

But Sandberg wears her feminism proudly, and Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead can be seen as her manifesto. It also seems, like just about everything else she touches, to have turned to gold. Putting it plainly, Lean In is less a book than a phenomenon. Topping the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists in its first week of publication and with seven reprints so far, it has spoken to a gradually deepening tidal swell, churning up a tsunami akin to the response to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, books that helped galvanise my generation.

The idea for a book emerged after Sandberg’s December 2010 TED talk in which she enunciated the basic principles at the core of Lean In. The salient point here is that she began the fifteen-minute address with a list of mea culpas. Yes, she is lucky; yes, her audience is lucky. They live in a privileged class in a privileged society. Slim, brunette, stylishly dressed and coiffed, she told us we are slipping and barraged us with dismaying statistics. At the time of the talk, only 9 per cent of the world’s leaders were female, and only 13 per cent of its parliamentarians. Women comprise only 15 to 20 per cent of the leaders in their companies or professions and, more surprisingly, only 20 per cent of those of non-profit organisations. Over the two and a bit years since “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” was posted online it has attracted viewers in the millions. Lean In is a heavily researched if simply expounded expansion of both its themes and its method.

It’s also a rebuttal to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s bombshell of an article in Atlantic Monthly last year. In “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Slaughter described leaving a high-ranking position with the US state department because of worries about her teenage sons. Her husband had done what Sandberg recommends for any leading woman’s partner. He looked after their home and the boys during the week while Slaughter was away in Washington. He did this part well but it began to look like it wasn’t going to be enough. When her older son started acting up, Slaughter chucked in the Washington job and returned to the academic one waiting for her at Princeton, hurrying home “as fast as I could.”

Slaughter’s story has echoes in Nicola Roxon’s, and like Roxon she has been criticised for sacrificing a star career for the sake of her family. Neither Slaughter nor Roxon is likely to don an apron and withdraw completely from public life, and Slaughter for one still believes strongly that women can “have it all,” all at the same time. “But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Slaughter makes mention of Sandberg’s TED talk and a later speech to Barnard College graduates in which Sandberg advised them not to curtail their ambitions if they’re thinking about having children by doing what she calls “leaving before you leave.” Her point then, and in her book, is that after taking maternity leave women are more likely to want to return to a challenging job than to a less interesting one, one they allowed themselves to be bored in. But Slaughter counters, “Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

The Slaughter–Sandberg debate has intensified with Lean In’s publication. “Whatever this book is,” Sandberg writes, “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top or pursue any goal vigorously.” A second aim is to help “any man who wants to understand what a woman – a colleague, a wife, mother or daughter – is up against so that he can do his part to build an equal world.”

It would be impossible in a review of this length to track the explosion of opinion Lean In has engendered. Reviewed in just about every major newspaper, it has also prompted comment on a succession of online sites, including Al Jazeera’s. As far as I’ve been able to keep abreast of them, my impression is that they’re more or less divided between those who praise the book and those who disagree with its premise or castigate the author for being who she is. While Sandberg does her best to anticipate her critics by admitting that “my financial resources allow me to afford any help I need,” this only sparks further salvos (especially in light of the drop in Facebook’s share price after the much-ballyhooed IPO she was responsible for as COO). She also denies that her focus on helping individual women advance themselves is “letting our institutions off the hook,” arguing unequivocally that “female leaders are the key to the solution.”

BEAR with me while I turn back to the future again. Way back in the seventies we gnashed our teeth over leaders, especially ones chosen by people other than ourselves. We second-wavers didn’t believe in leaders; we didn’t even call ourselves feminists – a term of opprobrium applied to the suffragists who got us the vote but no means of using it effectively – until we learned more of their struggle and proudly assumed the name along with our history. But sooner or later we had to deal with the very sticky, ideologically impure concept of power. After an uncomfortable moment of accommodation it came to be seen as necessary, desirable even, to enter institutions in order to change them from within. Thus we entered bureaucracies (Australian feminists gave the world the word “femocrat,” along with the strategy) and the universities; the media; the law and government at all levels – all with a reforming purpose, if fuelled by a revolutionary passion.

But “lean in”? To scale the capitalist heights scarcely occurred to us. More than any single factor (other than the salaries high flyers anywhere now command) this seems to me to be the difference between then and now. The women Sandberg addresses are, by and large, more than conversant with the language she uses. To “lean in” is to “sit at the table.” To put other considerations ahead of career advancements is to “lean back.” Sincere and straightforward as she is, Sandberg’s prose tends too readily to morph into slogans, as hollow and egregious as those deployed by the admen advising political parties. I like what she says far more than how she says it, but this might say more about my age (and literary pretensions). I also appreciate that Sandberg identifies as a feminist and my gratitude swells when she remarks that true equality will be achieved when women comprise 50 per cent of the workforce, half our social, political and economic institutions, and half of their leaders. When that does happen, she asks, “how can you dislike that many people?”

It’s hard to read all this without being reminded of the extraordinary transformation that’s taken place in Australia, once one of the most sexist of Western nations, over the past forty-odd years. For all the remaining obstacles, we’ve come astonishingly far. At the federal level alone, we have a female governor-general, a female prime minister and, even with Roxon’s resignation, a ministry that’s 33 per cent female. And yet, unfortunately, not everyone is happy with this. Can it be that in response to all these female faces another backlash is occurring, fiercer than ever before? The “women are destroying the joint” comments of Alan Jones and his ilk have been breathtakingly vicious. There is also deep outrage among women over the treatment dished out to Julia Gillard. Anne Summers has made a case that the treatment of Gillard is particularly vicious, much more so than what any male prime minister has been subjected to. But still, this is hard to unpack. How much is the hatred unleashed on Gillard due to Abbott’s relentless campaign against the government she snatched away from him? How much is misogyny a tool and how much is it truly felt?

The real issue for an old-style feminist like me is the degree to which the unprecedented number of women in power has benefited us. I can’t be the only one who’s thought long and hard about this, and I have to admit that I’ve been disappointed so far. Not because our women leaders haven’t performed well, but because they’re still constrained by uneven numbers and the lack of an overall strategy for withstanding the prevailing economic culture. It’s better they’re there than not, but the dominance of market capitalism has been, at best, a mixed blessing, even for privileged women. For those lower down the income scale it hasn’t done much at all. And this is a system, it seems, that a feminist like Sheryl Sandberg, for all the sponsoring, mentoring and charity work, hasn’t even begun to think about addressing. •