Leaning Away From ‘Lean-In’



A feminist’s musings.

Soviet Feminism
Soviet Feminism

Recently, a Facebook event regarding a debate on the future of feminism between pro and anti Lean-In feminists trapped my particular attention. The cautious feminist that I am, this post precipitated in me an avalanche of self-introspection and much to my own surprise, my thoughts came in bearing heavily on the side of the Lean-In–resistant strain of feminism. To me, the Lean-In approach seemed to fail at achieving the fundamental goals of the feminist movement.

For the uninformed, the “Lean-In” concept credits its origin to the book “Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg. In the book, Sandberg encourages women to actively ‘lean in’: to make themselves heard at their workplaces, by being more assertive and outspoken, as a way of rising up in male-dominated hierarchies.

Before we begin to delve into the subtler depths of the Lean-In movement, it would serve us well to lay down a functional definition of feminism that we could use as a reference point for all later arguments. While it is true that a concept as nebulous in definition as feminism could be tailored to fit different goals, its overarching goals could be recognized as dissembling a society based exclusively on the ideals of patriarchy; to recognize women and all other genders for who they are, independent of themselves, not for the ends they serve in a patriarchal plane of coordinates.

Having established this broader framework of feminism to work with, let us begin to analyze these schools of thought. The Lean-In school asks women to assume or exploit a certain range of qualities — most notably assertiveness and control. In this very first regard, it fails feminism in its very core objective — the recognition and celebration of women for who they are. Yes, women can be dominant, but they can also be docile; they can choose to speak up and get noticed, or choose not to be quite so conspicuous: what matters, and should rightly matter, are their individual sets of talents and skills. We fail to celebrate their talents, and qualify their skill set by endorsing the view that their skills will matter only in so far as they act like such and such — that their talents and their persona derive their legitimacy from how well they adapt to a flawed system.

More importantly, the entire ‘lean in’ concept is reminiscent of the concept of self help; a submission on part of the feminist movement that workplace attitudes which conspire to thwart female career mobility are as real as they are sad, and are here to stay. In such a situation, their safest bet would be to adjust as best as we could: in this case, asking women to assume a blanket range of attitudes to survive in what will eternally be a flawed, biased and deeply sexist corporate culture. In fact, adopting such an attitude could be equated to saying that the fault lay as much (if not more) with the women as with the corporate institutions themselves. This premise of the Lean-In movement could be read in the same light as victim blaming in cases of sexual assault; we indirectly blame the woman for not being assertive enough, while condoning, or at least doing nothing to directly counteract, the male-dominated corporate structure whose attitudes are the most basic cause of female non-mobility in the industry in the first place. Such an attitude is highly inconsistent with the objectives of feminism as a whole. Not only does it fail to recognize and celebrate women for their natural and inherent talents, but — more fundamentally — by asking women to cater to a specific code of conduct, becomes a goal post for encouraging patriarchy and its many manifestations in the workplace and beyond.

This is not to say, however, that the Lean-In model is an inherently flawed concept in and out of itself: individuals frustrated with the existing bottlenecks, like Sheryl Sandberg, might have found it to reap results for themselves. This approach may work best for some women, but may not be best for others. Preaching that there is only one way to get ahead in a male-dominated workplace — by being assertive, like men — only furthers the patriarchal nature of the corporate world. What is problematic, are the implications flowing from the endorsement of the Lean-In school of thought by such a dynamic movement as feminism. Such an endorsement will not only decimate and deconstruct the goals and achievements of our feminist movement, but — most vitally — reveal our creed to be a hypocritical, inconsistent lot in that we function to celebrate the control of the same asphyxiating institutions that we sought out to disintegrate.

Aditya Agrawal ’17 (adityaagrawal@college) especially enjoys musing on feminism in the neon-colored chairs in the Yard.