Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not
[from The Baffler No. 23, 2013]
The congregation swooned as she bounded on stage, the prophet sealskin sleek in her black skinny ankle pants and black ballet flats, a lavalier microphone clipped to the V-neck of her black button-down sweater. “All right!! Let’s go!!” she exclaimed, throwing out her arms and pacing the platform before inspirational graphics of glossy young businesswomen in managerial action poses. “Super excited to have all of you here!!”
“Whoo!!” the young women in the audience replied. The camera, which was livestreaming the event in the Menlo Park, California, auditorium to college campuses worldwide, panned the rows of well-heeled Stanford University econ majors and MBA candidates. Some clutched copies of the day’s hymnal: the speaker’s new book, which promised to dismantle “internal obstacles” preventing them from “acquiring power.” The atmosphere was TED-Talk-cum-tent-revival-cum-Mary-Kay-cosmetics-convention. The salvation these adherents sought on this April day in 2013 was admittance to the pearly gates of the corporate corner office.
“Stand up,” the prophet instructed, “if you’ve ever said out loud, to another human being—and you have to have said it out loud—‘I am going to be the number one person in my field. I will be the CEO of a major company. I will be governor. I will be the number one person in my field.’” A small, although not inconsiderable, percentage of the young women rose to their feet.
The speaker consoled those still seated; she, too, had once been one of them. When she was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school, she confided, she had begged a yearbook editor to delete that information, “because most likely to succeed doesn’t get a date for the prom.” Those days were long gone, ever since she’d had her conversion on the road to Davos: she’d “leaned in” to her ambitions and enhanced her “likability”—and they could do the same. What’s more, if they took the “lean in” pledge, they might free themselves from some of those other pesky problems that hold women back in the workplace. “If you lean forward,” she said, “you will get yourself into a position where the organization you’re with values you a lot and is therefore willing to be more flexible. Or you’ll get promoted and then you’ll get paid more and you’ll be able to afford better child care.” If you “believe you have the skills to do anything” and “have the ambition to lead,” then you will “change the world” for women. “We get closer to the goal of true equality with every single one of you who leans in.”
The pitch delivered, Lean In founder and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg summoned her deacon to close the deal. Rachel Thomas hustled onstage, a Sandberg Mini-Me in matching black ensemble (distinguished only by the color of her ballet flats and baubled necklace, both of which were gold). She’s Lean In’s president. (Before Lean In hit the bookstores, it was already a fully staffed operation, an organization purporting to be “a global community committed to encouraging and supporting women leaning in to their ambitions.”) “I really want to invite you to join our community!” Thomas told the assembled. “You’ll get daily inspiration and insights.”
Joining “the community” was just a click away. In fact, the community was already uploaded and ready to receive them; all they had to do was hit the “Lean In Today” button on their computer screen . . . and, oh yeah, join Facebook. (There is no entry into Lean In’s Emerald e-Kingdom except through the Facebook portal; Sandberg has kept her message of liberation confined within her own corporate brand.)
Thomas enumerated the “three things” that Lean In offered. (In the Lean In Community, there are invariably three things required to achieve your aims.) First, Thomas instructed, “Come like us on Facebook” (and, for extra credit, post your own inspirational graphic on Lean In’s Facebook “photo gallery” and “tag your friends, tell them why you’re leaning in!”). Second, watch Lean In’s online “education” videos, twenty-minute lectures from “experts” (business school professors, management consultants, and a public speaking coach) with titles like “Power and Influence” and “Own the Room.” Third, create a “Lean In Circle” with eight to ten similarly aspirational young women. The circles, Lean In literature stresses, are to promote “peer mentorship” only—not to deliver aid and counsel from experienced female elders who might actually help them advance. Thomas characterized the circle as “a book club with a purpose.” All they had to do was click on the “Create a Circle” button on LeanIn.org and follow the “three easy steps.” “We provide everything that you need to do it,” Thomas assured. “All the materials, all the how-to information, and a very cool technology platform called Mightybell.” Mightybell’s CEO, it so happens, is Gina Bianchini, cofounder of Lean In. “So it’s really easy to do, and don’t wait!” Thomas said. “Go do it for yourself today!”
Since its unveiling this spring, the Lean In campaign has been reeling in a steadily expanding group of tens of thousands of followers with its tripartite E-Z plan for getting to the top. But the real foundation of the movement is, of course, Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, billed modestly by its author as “sort of a feminist manifesto.” Sandberg’s mantra has become the feminist rallying cry of the moment, praised by notable figures such as Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Marlo Thomas, and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. A Time magazine cover story hails Sandberg for “embarking on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions of gender since the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971.” Pretty good for somebody who, “as of two and a half years ago,” as Sandberg confessed on her book tour, “had never said the word woman aloud. Because that’s not how you get ahead in the world.”
If you were waiting for someone to lean in for child care legislation, keep holding your breath.
The lovefest continues on LeanIn.org’s “Meet the Community” page, where tribute is paid by Sandberg’s high-powered network of celebrities, corporate executives, and media moguls (many media moguls), among them Oprah Winfrey, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Newsweek and Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles, former Good Morning America coanchor Willow Bay, former first lady Laura Bush (and both of her daughters), former California first lady and TV host Maria Shriver, U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Elizabeth Warren, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, Dun & Bradstreet CEO Sara Mathew, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Coca-Cola marketing executive Wendy Clark, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, supermodel Tyra Banks, and actor (and Avon “Global Ambassador”) Reese Witherspoon.
Beneath highly manicured glam shots, each “member” or “partner” reveals her personal “Lean In moment.” The accounts inevitably have happy finales—the Lean In guidelines instruct contributors to “share a positive ending.” Tina Brown’s Lean In moment: getting her parents to move from England to “the apartment across the corridor from us on East 57th Street in New York,” so her mother could take care of the children while Brown took the helm at The New Yorker. If you were waiting for someone to lean in for child care legislation, keep holding your breath. So far, there’s no discernible groundswell.
When asked why she isn’t pushing for structural social and economic change, Sandberg says she’s all in favor of “public policy reform,” though she’s vague about how exactly that would work, beyond generic tsk-tsking about the pay gap and lack of maternity leave. She says she supports reforming the workplace—but the particulars of comparable worth or subsidized child care are hardly prominent elements of her book or her many media appearances.
Sandberg began her TED Talk in December 2010, the trial balloon for the Lean In campaign, with a one-sentence nod to “flex time,” training, and other “programs” that might advance working women, and then declared, “I want to talk about none of that today.” What she wanted to talk about, she said, was “what we can do as individuals” to climb to the top of the command chain.
This clipped, jarring shift from the collective grievances of working women to the feel-good options open to credentialed, professional types is also a pronounced theme in Lean In, the book. In the opening pages, Sandberg acknowledges that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet,” but goes on to stress that “each subsequent chapter focuses on an adjustment or difference that we can make ourselves.” When asked in a radio interview in Boston about the external barriers women face, Sandberg agreed that women are held back “by discrimination and sexism and terrible public policy” and “we should reform all of that,” but then immediately suggested that the concentration on such reforms has been disproportionate, arguing that “the conversation can’t be only about that, and in a lot of ways the conversation on women is usually only about that.” Toward the end of the Q&A period at the Menlo Park event, a student watching online asked, “What would you say to the critics who argue that lower socioeconomic status makes it difficult to lean in?” Sandberg replied that leaning in might be even “more important for women who are struggling to make ends meet,” then offered this anecdote as evidence: She had received a fan email from a reader who “never graduated from college” and had gone back to work in 1998 after her husband lost his job. “Until she read Lean In, she had never asked for a raise. And last week, she asked for a raise.” Pause for the drum roll. “And she got it! That’s what this is about.”
Lean In’s rank-and-file devotees don’t get the marquee billing accorded the celebrity and executive set on the handpicked “Meet the Community” page. Nevertheless, they seem eager to “join the community”: as of July 12, 2013, they “liked” Lean In 237,552 times. Their online participation on Lean In’s Facebook page is limited to making comments—in response to the organization’s announcements of the latest Lean In marketing triumphs. (“Very excited that Lean In is #1 on The New York Times Book Review - Six weeks in a row!”; “Very excited to see Sheryl Sandberg on the TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world!”; “We’re excited to watch Sheryl Sandberg Lean In with Oprah this weekend. Tune in to watch Oprah’s Next Chapter on Sunday, March 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network!”)
Evidently the “likers” are excited too: they cheer the media conquests of the Leaner-In-in-chief, whose success began at the top (thanks not to “peer mentoring” but to her powerful college adviser, former Harvard University president Larry Summers) and who has remained there ever since—a stratospheric hurtle from Harvard to the World Bank to the U.S. Treasury Department to Google to Facebook. The comments read like a Sandbergian amen corner: “Congratulations Sheryl! You diserve [sic] it!♥”; “This is such an awesome book! It has really energized me with refocusing on my career goals.”; “am reading book on my kindle now, awesome so far!”; “Awesome talk!!!”; “God Bless! And lets [sic] continue to spread this message and lean in!”; “Sheryl is igniting the new feminine movement!”; “THANK YOU FOR LEADING THE REVOLUTION!!!!☺”; “sheryl is inspirational! I missed zumba for this and happy I did!”
The scene at the Menlo Park auditorium, and its conflation of “believe in yourself” faith and material rewards, will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a Sunday inside a prosperity-gospel megachurch or watched Reverend Ike’s vintage “You Deserve the Best!” sermon on YouTube. But why is that same message now ascendant among the American feminists of the new millennium?
Sandberg’s admirers would say that Lean In is using free-market beliefs to advance the cause of women’s equality. Her detractors would say (and have) that her organization is using the desire for women’s equality to advance the cause of the free market. And they would both be right. In embodying that contradiction, Sheryl Sandberg would not be alone and isn’t so new. For the last two centuries, feminism, like evangelicalism, has been in a dance with capitalism.
All As One
In 1834, America’s first industrial wage earners, the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, embarked on their own campaign for women’s advancement in the workplace. They didn’t “lean in,” though. When their male overseers in the nation’s first large-scale planned industrial city cut their already paltry wages by 15 to 20 percent, the textile workers declared a “turn-out,” one of the nation’s earliest industrial strikes. That first effort failed, but its participants did not concede defeat. The Lowell women would stage another turn-out two years later, create the first union of working women in American history, lead a fight for the ten-hour work day, and conceive of an increasingly radical vision that took aim both at corporate power and the patriarchal oppression of women. Their bruising early encounter with American industry fueled a nascent feminist outlook that would ultimately find full expression in the first wave of the American women’s movement.
Capitalism, you could say, had midwifed feminism.
And capitalism, Sandberg would say, still sustains it. But what happened between 1834 and 2013—between “turn-out” and “lean in”—to make Lean In such an odd heir to the laurels of Lowell? An answer lies in the history of those early textile mills.
The Lowell factory owners had recruited “respectable” Yankee farmers’ daughters from the New England countryside, figuring that respectable would translate into docile. They figured wrong. The forces of industrialization had propelled young women out of the home, breaking the fetters binding them to the patriarchal family, unleashing the women into urban areas with few social controls, and permitting them to begin thinking of themselves as public citizens. The combination of newly gained independence and increasingly penurious, exploitative conditions proved combustible—and the factory owners’ reduction in pay turned out to be the match that lit the tinder. Soon after they heard the news, the “mill girls”—proclaiming that they “remain in possession of our unquestionable rights”—shut down their looms and walked out.
Capitalism, you could say, had midwifed feminism.
From the start, the female textile workers made the connection between labor and women’s rights. Historian Thomas Dublin, in his book on the Lowell mill girls, Women at Work, cited an account in the Boston Evening Transcript. “One of the leaders mounted a pump,” the article reported, “and made a flaming Mary Woolstonecroft [sic] speech on the rights of women and the iniquities of the ‘monied aristocracy.’” The speech “produced a powerful effect on her auditors, and they determined ‘to have their own way if they died for it.’” In a statement the mill workers issued on the first day of the turn-out, titled “Union is Power,” they elaborated:
The oppressing hand of avarice would enslave us, and to gain their object, they gravely tell us of the pressure of the times, this we are already sensible of, and deplore it. If any are in want, the Ladies will be compassionate and assist them; but we prefer to have the disposing of our charities in our own hands; and as we are free, we would remain in possession of what kind Providence has bestowed upon us, and remain daughters of freemen still.
The mill proprietors looked on with unease at what they regarded as an “amizonian [sic] display” and “a spirit of evil omen.”
The Lowell turn-out was a communal endeavor, built on intense bonds of sisterhood forged around the clock: by day on the factory floor, where the women worked in pairs, with the more experienced female worker training and looking out for the newcomer, and by night in the company boarding houses, where they shared cramped quarters, often two to a bed, and embroiled themselves in late-night discussions about philosophy, music, literature, and, increasingly, social and economic injustice. As Dublin observed of the web of “mutual dependence” that prevailed in the Lowell mill workforce, the strike was “made possible because women had come to form a ‘community’ of operatives in the mill, rather than simply a group of individual workers.” An actual community, that is—not an online like-a-thon. Tellingly, the strike began when a mill agent, hoping to nip agitation in the bud, fired one of the more voluble factory workers whom he regarded as the ringleader. The other women immediately walked out in protest over her expulsion. The petition they signed and circulated concluded: “Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.”
In a matter of years, the Lowell women would become increasingly radical, as crusaders for both worker and gender equality. They had originally been encouraged to write ladylike stories for the mill girls’ literary magazine, the Lowell Offering, which was launched by a local minister and supported by the textile companies. By the 1840s, many young working women were filing copy instead with the Voice of Industry, a labor newspaper published by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The paper’s “Female Department,” edited by the association’s president, Sarah Bagley, featured articles by and about women workers, with a declared mission both to revamp “the system of labor” and “defend woman’s rights.” “You have been degraded long enough,” an article in the Voice advised its female readers. “You have sufficiently long been considered ‘the inferior’—a kind of ‘upper servant,’ to obey and reverence, and be in subjection to your equal.” No more. “Enter at once upon your privileges,” the article exhorted, calling on women to demand their equal rights to education, employment, and respect from men.
The mill workers went on to agitate against an unjust system in all its forms. When Lowell’s state representative thwarted the women’s statewide battle for the ten-hour day, they mobilized and succeeded in having him voted out of office—nearly eighty years before women had the vote. Mill women in Lowell and, in the decades to come, their counterparts throughout New England threw themselves into the abolitionist movement (drawing connections between the cotton picked by slaves and the fabric they wove in the mills); campaigned for better health care, safer schools, decent housing, and cleaner water and streets; and joined the fight for women’s suffrage. Sarah Bagley went on to work for prison reform, women’s rights, and education and decent jobs for poor women and prostitutes. After a stint as the first female telegrapher in the nation (where she pointed out that she was being paid two-thirds of a male telegrapher’s salary), she taught herself homeopathic medicine and became a doctor, billing her patients according to her personal proviso, “To the rich, one dollar—to the poor gratis.”
Increasingly, the mill girls were joined in these efforts by their middle-class sisters. Cross-class female solidarity surfaced early in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the horrific building collapse of the Pemberton Mills factory in 1860, which killed 145 workers, most of them women and children. (The mills in Lawrence would later give rise to the famously militant “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, in which female workers again played a leading role.) In the aftermath of the Pemberton disaster, middle-class women in the region flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women. By the postbellum years, with industrialization at full tide and economic polarization at record levels, a critical mass of middle-class female reformers had come to believe that the key to women’s elevation was not, as they once thought, “moral uplift,” but economic independence—and that cross-class struggle on behalf of female workers was the key to achieving it.
A host of organizations launched by professional women, like Sorosis and the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), sprang up to campaign for the economic advancement of both middle- and working-class women. “From its first days,” historian Mari Jo Buhle observed in Women and American Socialism, “Sorosis encompassed broader purposes than aid to a handful of aspiring women professionals. All workingwomen, the leaders believed, shared a common grievance and a common need for organization.” The WEIU in Boston, like Lean In, held lectures to promote women in business—but it also sent investigative teams to expose poor conditions for women on the factory and retail floor, procured legal services for working women denied their rightful wages, offered job referral services for women of all classes, and set up cooperative exchanges for homebound women to sell their handcrafts so that even they might achieve some measure of fiscal independence from their husbands. In Chicago, the Illinois Woman’s Alliance launched a full-bore probe of abusive sweatshops that spawned a congressional investigation, successfully lobbied for a shorter workday for sweatshop workers, and even demanded legal rights for prostitutes, including the right to be free of police harassment.
From the sounds of recent pronouncements, it might seem that efforts to elevate the woman worker have finally paid off. With giddy triumphalism, books like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family (both published in 2012) celebrate the imminent emergence of a female supremacy. “For the first time in history, the global economy is becoming a place where women are finding more success than men,” Rosin declared, noting that twelve of the fifteen jobs projected to grow the fastest in the United States in the next decade “are occupied primarily by women.” The female worker, she wrote, is “becoming the standard by which success is measured.” Mundy, who called this supremacy the “Big Flip,” predicted that, thanks to the new economy, we would soon be living in a world “where women routinely support households and outearn the men they are married to,” and men “will gladly hitch their wagon to a female star.”
A star like Sheryl Sandberg, whose feminism seems a capstone of female ascendancy. Never mind that the “fastest-growing” future occupations for women—home health aide, child care worker, customer service representative, office clerk, food service worker—are among the lowest paid, most with few to no benefits and little possibility for “advancement.” Progress has stalled for many ordinary women—or gone into reverse. The poverty rate for women, according to the Census Bureau’s latest statistics, is at its highest point since 1993, and the “extreme poverty rate” among women is at the highest point ever recorded.
But there seems to be little tangible cross-class solidarity coming from the triumphalists, despite their claims to be speaking for all womankind. “If we can succeed in adding more female voices at the highest levels,” Sandberg writes in her book, “we will expand opportunities and extend fairer treatment to all.” But which highest-level voices? When former British prime minister Margaret (“I hate feminism”) Thatcher died, Lean In’s Facebook page paid homage to the Iron Lady and invited its followers to post “which moments were most memorable to you” from Thatcher’s tenure. That invitation inspired a rare outburst of un-“positive” remarks in the comment section, at least from some women in the U.K. “Really??” wrote one. “She was a tyrant. . . . Just because a woman is in a leadership position does not make her worthy of respect, especially if you were on the receiving end of what she did to lots of people.” “So disappointing that Lean In endorses Thatcher as a positive female role model,” wrote another. “She made history as a woman, but went on to use her power to work against the most vulnerable, including women and their children.”
Even when celebrating more laudable examples of female leadership, Lean In’s spotlight rarely roves beyond the uppermost echelon. One looks in vain through its website statements, literature, and declarations at its public events for evidence of concern about how the other half lives—or rather, the other 99 percent. As Linda Burnham observed in a perceptive essay on Portside.org, Lean In “has essentially produced a manifesto for corporatist feminism,” a “1% feminism” that “is all about the glass ceiling, never about the floor.” The movement originally forged to move the great mass of women has been hijacked to serve the individual (and privileged) girl.
As it turns out, it’s a hijacking that’s long been under way.
The landmark year in the transition from common struggle to individual enhancement was 1920—ironically, the same year that women won the right to vote. In the course of the twenties, an ascendant consumer economy would do as much to derail feminist objectives as advance them. Capitalism, feminism’s old midwife, had become its executioner. And a cleverly disguised one: this grim reaper donned a feminist-friendly face.
The rising new forces of consumer manipulation—mass media, mass entertainment, national advertising, the fashion and beauty industries, popular psychology—all seized upon women’s yearnings for independence and equality and redirected them to the marketplace. Over and over, mass merchandisers promised women an ersatz version of emancipation, the fulfillment of individual, and aspirational, desire. Why mount a collective protest against the exploitations of the workplace when it was so much more gratifying—not to mention easier—to advance yourself (and only yourself) by shopping for “liberating” products that expressed your “individuality” and signaled your (seemingly) elevated class status?
In the postindustrial economy, feminism has been retooled as a vehicle for expression of the self, a “self” as marketable consumer object.
The message was ubiquitous in 1920s advertising pitched to women. “An Ancient Prejudice Has Been Removed,” decreed a Lucky Strike banner, above a picture of an unfettered flapper girl wreathed in cigarette smoke. Enjoy “positive agitation” at home, Hoover vacuum ads entreated, with the new machine’s “revolutionary cleaning principle.” “Woman suffrage made the American woman the political equal of her man,” General Electric cheered. “The little switch which commands the great servant Electricity is making her workshop the equal of her man’s.” That “workshop,” of course, was the domestic bower, to which privileged women were now expected to retire. In 1929, at the behest of the American Tobacco Company, Edward Bernays, the founding father of public relations, organized a procession of debutantes to troop down Fifth Avenue during the Easter Parade, asserting their “right” to smoke in public by puffing “torches of freedom.” Women’s quest for social and economic freedom had been reenacted as farce.
Where industrial capitalism had driven women as a group to mobilize to change society, its consumer variant induced individual women to submit, each seemingly of her own free will, to a mass-produced culture. They were then encouraged to call that submission liberation. This is the mode that much of American feminism has been stuck in ever since, despite attempts by late-1960s radical feminists to dismantle the female consumer armament of cosmetics, girdles, and hair spray. (The dismantling became quite literal in the 1968 demonstration against the Miss America Pageant, where young radicals hurled “instruments of female torture” into a “Freedom Trash Can.”)
In the postindustrial economy, feminism has been retooled as a vehicle for expression of the self, a “self” as marketable consumer object, valued by how many times it’s been bought—or, in our electronic age, how many times it’s been clicked on. “Images of a certain kind of successful woman proliferate,” British philosopher Nina Power observed of contemporary faux-feminism in her 2009 book, One-Dimensional Woman. “The city worker in heels, the flexible agency employee, the hard-working hedonist who can afford to spend her income on vibrators and wine—and would have us believe that—yes—capitalism is a girl’s best friend.”
In the 1920s, male capitalists invoked feminism to advance their brands of corporate products. Nearly a century later, female marketers are invoking capitalism to advance their corporate brand of feminism. Sandberg’s “Lean In Community” is Exhibit A. What is she selling, after all, if not the product of the company she works for? Every time a woman signs up for Lean In, she’s made another conquest for Facebook. Facebook conquers women in more than one way. Nearly 60 percent of the people who do the daily labor on Facebook—maintaining their pages, posting their images, tagging their friends, driving the traffic—are female, and, unlike the old days of industrial textile manufacturing, they don’t even have to be paid or housed. “Facebook benefits every time a woman uploads her picture,” Kate Losse, a former employee of Facebook and author of The Boy Kings, a keenly observed memoir of her time there, pointed out to me. “And what is she getting? Nothing, except a constant flow of ‘likes.’”
When Losse came to Facebook in 2005, she was only the second woman hired in a company that then had fifty employees. Her job was to answer user-support emails. Low-wage customer support work would soon become Facebook’s pink ghetto. Losse recalled the decor that adorned the company walls in those years: drawings of “stylized women with large breasts bursting from small tops.” On Mark Zuckerberg’s birthday, the women at the company were instructed to wear T-shirts displaying his photo, like groupies.
“It was like Mad Men,” she wrote of the office environment in Boy Kings, “but real and happening in the current moment, as if in repudiation of fifty years of social progress.” A few years into her tenure, Losse was promoted to oversee the translation of Facebook’s site into other languages. The promotion didn’t come with an increase in pay. When Losse, like the woman in Sandberg’s anecdote, asked for a raise, she was refused. “You’ve already doubled your salary in a year,” her manager told her, “and it wouldn’t be fair to the engineers who haven’t had that raise”—the engineers (virtually all male) who were already at the top of the pay scale, unlike her. Her final job at Facebook was to serve as Mark Zuckerberg’s personal “writer and researcher.” The job, or rather “the role,” as Zuckerberg called it, required her to write “his” blog entries on Facebook and post “his” updates to the Zuckerberg fan page.
Losse quit in 2010 to become a writer—of her own words, not her boss’s. Earlier this year, she wrote a thought-provoking piece about Lean In for Dissent, “Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins from Leaning In?” The winners, she noted, are not the women in tech, who “are much more likely to be hired in support functions where they are paid a bare minimum, given tiny equity grants compared to engineers and executives, and given raises on the order of fifty cents an hour rather than thousands of dollars.” These are the fast-growth jobs for women in high technology, just as Menlo Park’s postindustrial campuses are the modern equivalent of the Lowell company town. Sandberg’s book proposed to remedy that system, Losse noted, not by changing it but simply by telling women to work harder:
Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.
For her candor, Losse came under instant attack from the Sandberg sisterhood. Brandee Barker, a Lean In publicist and former head of public relations for Facebook, sent Losse the following message: “There’s a special place in hell for you.” Losse defended herself the only way you can in the age of social media: she took a screenshot of Barker’s nastygram and tweeted it. “Maybe sending Hellfire and Damnation messages is part of the Lean In PR strategy,” Losse wrote in her tweet. “LEAN IN OR ELSE YOU’RE GOING TO HELL.” Other Lean In naysayers have been similarly damned by Lean In devotees. When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a measured critique of Lean In, Sandberg’s fans promptly and widely denounced her. Losse said she’s not surprised by the fire-and-brimstone ferocity of the response. “There’s this cult-like religiosity to Facebook and Lean In,” she told me. “If you’re ‘in,’ you belong—and if you’re not, you’re going to hell.”
That Lean In is making its demands of individual women, not the corporate workplace, is evident in the ease with which it has signed up more than two hundred corporate and organization “partners” to support its campaign. The roster includes some of the biggest American corporations: Chevron, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Comcast, Bank of America and Citibank, Coca-Cola and Pepsico, AT&T and Verizon, Ford and GM, Pfizer and Merck & Co., Costco and Wal-Mart, and, of course, Google and Facebook. Never before have so many corporations joined a revolution. Virtually nothing is required of them—not even a financial contribution. “There are no costs associated with partnering with Lean In,” the organization’s manual assures. “We just ask that you publicly support our mission and actively promote our Community to your employees.” All the companies have to do is post their logo on Lean In’s “Platform Partners” page, along with a quote from one of their executives professing the company’s commitment to advancing women. The testimonials are predictably platitudinous:
Ed Gilligan, American Express president: “At American Express, we believe having more women in senior leadership is critical to fostering an environment that embraces diverse opinions and empowers all employees to reach their full potential. It’s this spirit of inclusiveness that helps us make better decisions today to drive our growth for tomorrow.”
Paul Bulcke, Nestlé CEO: “At Nestlé we are committed to enhancing the career opportunities for both men and women, and the knowledge and expertise provided by Lean In will help accelerate our journey.”
Jeff Wilke, Amazon senior vice president, consumer business: “At Amazon, we lean in to challenge ourselves to develop as leaders by building things that matter. We solve problems in new ways and value calculated risk-taking; many decisions are reversible. Bold directions that inspire results help us to think differently and look around corners for ways to serve our customers.”
That last statement manages to endorse Lean In without even bothering to mention women. Many of the high-level executives dispensing quotations are male—and a notable number of the female executives are in “communications,” “human resources,” or “diversity” posts. And funny—or not—how often professed “commitment” to women’s advancement fails to bear up under inspection. Run some Platform Partner names through databases that track legal cases, and you will find a bumper crop of recent or pending EEOC grievances and state and federal court actions involving sex discrimination, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, unfair promotion policies, wrongful terminations, and gender-based retaliations against female employees. Here are just a few:
Lean In Platform Partner Citibank: In 2010, six current and former female employees sued Citibank’s parent company, Citigroup, for discriminating against women at all levels, paying them less, overlooking them for promotions, and firing them first in companywide layoffs. Their federal court complaint held that the company “turns a blind eye” to widespread discrimination against women and detailed the paltry numbers of women in upper management in every division—with the proportion of female managing directors in some divisions as low as 9 percent. All nineteen members of the bank’s executive committee are male. “The outdated ‘boys club,”’ the complaint concluded, “is alive and well at Citigroup.”
Lean In Platform Partner Booz Allen Hamilton: In 2011, Molly Finn, a former partner at the firm who had been fired after serving as its highest-ranking female employee and a star performer, sued for sex discrimination. She charged the company with creating an unwelcome environment for women and intentionally barring them from top leadership posts. During a review for a promotion (which she was subsequently denied), she was told to stop saying “pro-woman, feminist things,” she recalled.
Soon after Finn’s suit, a second longtime partner and leading moneymaker, Margo Fitzpatrick, sued the company for sex discrimination and retaliatory termination. In court papers, she charged that the firm has “maintained a ‘glass ceiling’ that intentionally excludes highly-qualified women.” The complaint went on to note, “Currently, The Firm has no female partners in the pipeline for Senior Partner.” With the termination of Fitzpatrick and Finn, “the number of females in the partnership has dwindled to 21—or only 18%.”
Lean In Platform Partner Wells Fargo: In 2011, the bank reached a class-action settlement with 1,200 female financial advisers for $32 million. The sex discrimination suit charged that the bank’s brokerage business, Wells Fargo Advisors (originally Wachovia Securities), discriminated against women in compensation and signing bonuses, denied them promotions, and cheated them out of account distributions, investment partnerships, and mentoring and marketing opportunities.
Goldman Sachs (whose philanthropic arm, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, is a Lean In Platform Partner): In 2010, former employees of Goldman Sachs filed a class-action suit against the company, accusing Wall Street’s most profitable investment bank of “systematic and pervasive discrimination” against female employees, subjecting them to hostile working conditions and treating them “like disposable, second-class citizens.”
Lean In Platform Partners Mondelez and Nestlé: In 2013, an Oxfam investigation in four countries where the two companies outsourced their cocoa farms found that the women working in the cocoa fields and processing plants that the companies relied on “suffer substantial discrimination and inequality.” When women at a cocoa processing factory demanded equal treatment and pay, the investigation noted, all of the female workers were fired. The same companies that “put women first in their advertisements,” Oxfam concluded, “are doing very little to address poor conditions faced by the women who grow cocoa.”
Lean In Platform Partner Costco: In 2012, a federal judge approved a huge class-action lawsuit that alleges Costco discriminated against about seven hundred women and denied them promotions. The company, the suit charged, maintains a “glass ceiling” that prevents women from advancing to assistant manager and general manager positions. Costco’s senior management, the complaint observed, is virtually all male, and less than 16 percent of general managers nationwide are women. Costco cofounder and longtime CEO Jim Sinegal (who retired in 2011), has argued that women don’t want warehouse management posts because “women have a tendency to be the caretakers and have the responsibility for the children and for the family.”
And then there’s Lean In Platform Partner Wal-Mart. In 2011, the world’s largest retailer famously managed to dodge one of the largest class-action sex-discrimination suits in U.S. history (involving 1.5 million women), after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on technical grounds that the case didn’t constitute a single class action. In preparation for a second round of individual and regional class-action proceedings, thousands of female employees have already refiled sex-discrimination grievances in forty-eight states.
Here’s what Mike Duke, Wal-Mart CEO and president, had to say in his statement on Lean In’s Platform Partner page: “As we lean in to empower women, it helps us to better serve our customers, develop the best talent, and strengthen our communities.”
Never before have so many corporations joined a revolution.
And what about Facebook? When asked about women’s representation at the company during media appearances for her book tour, Sandberg was vague. “We’re ahead of the industry,” she told one interviewer, noting that a woman heads Facebook’s “global sales” and another is “running design,” before briskly changing the subject.
I contacted Facebook’s press office and submitted questions about the numbers and percentage of women in management, engineering, and so on. Ashley Zandy, media spokeswoman at Facebook, emailed me back, thanking me “for reaching out” and offering a “chat.” The chat was off the record and, in any case, provided no additional information on women’s representation at the company. Then she offered me an “off the record” conversation with Sandberg, which I declined: off the record meant I couldn’t repeat what Sandberg told me—and, considering Sandberg’s polish and power, I didn’t understand her reticence. Zandy said she’d try to get the figures I’d requested and arrange interviews, including ones with Sandberg and Facebook’s head of human resources.
Two days later, she sent me a second email. “I appreciate you reaching out,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to arrange any of the interviews you requested.” Nor provide statistics. “Unfortunately, we don’t share much of the detailed and quantitative data you have asked for.” She was able to tell me the following:
The names of Facebook’s top executives (which the company, by law, has to disclose in its annual report). Except for Sandberg, they were all male.
Names of “female leaders in operational roles.” Of the nine, only one was on the engineering side of the aisle; the others were mostly in traditionally “female” roles like communications, consumer marketing, and human resources.
Examples of Facebook’s “incredible benefits” (a generous four-month paid parental leave and a $4,000 “baby cash” payment) and “strong resources for ALL employees—and for women” (“Women Leadership Day,” “hosting speakers and mentoring student groups,” etc.).
And finally, “a FB statement in lieu of an interview”: “Statement: Facebook supports the message of Lean In—that women should pursue their goals with gusto, no matter what they may be. We work hard to create a work environment that supports women and gives them the opportunities to have impact and lead. Our management and employees are incredibly passionate about not just recruiting and retaining women, but developing the right leadership, policies and support to create a culture and workplace where they can thrive.”
I wrote back to say I appreciated the information and still wished to talk to Sandberg. “Though some of my questions are skeptical,” I said, “I hoped that they might open an actual and meaningful dialogue on a subject both she and I care about.” I presented four questions for Sandberg. Here are the first two:
1. A number of Lean In’s corporate Platform Partners seem to have a woman problem—most notably (though not alone), the sex-discrimination legal actions against Wal-Mart and Costco. How do you ensure that corporate partners are not signing up as a way of whitewashing (agreeing publicly with the concept of women’s advancement, and securing Lean In’s imprimatur, to avoid addressing more systemic problems)? Is there an instance where you’ve said to such a company that you’d be glad to have it as a partner, but only after it cleans up its act? Wouldn’t such a demand be an example of what you champion—that having women in power will benefit ordinary women?
2. Lean In Circles have been described as peer mentoring and as a sort of consciousness-raising for our times. If a Lean In Circle decides that members of its group have actual grievances with the companies they work for that require a political response, would Lean In be supportive of them taking political or legal action against those companies? Would you, for example, encourage a Lean In Circle to picket a discriminatory employer?
Zandy replied: “As I mentioned before, I do think an off the record conversation between you and Sheryl would be a great place to start the dialogue. Let me know if you would reconsider that.” I again declined.
In the middle of the next week, I received an email from another media spokesperson, this one with Lean In. Andrea Saul (formerly the press secretary for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign) informed me, “Unfortunately, an interview will not be possible.” Instead, she sent me written answers to my questions, evidently drafted by Lean In’s public relations apparatus (see below), and “a quote for your use”:
Lean In is a global community committed to encouraging and supporting women leaning in to their ambitions. We’re incredibly grateful to our community and the individuals, and institutions, who have already made progress changing the conversation on gender. But we know there is so much more to do before we live in an equal world. That’s why we’re not just encouraging, but supporting, everyone and every company that wants to lean in. It’s time to change the world, not just the conversation.
One Saturday several weeks into Sandberg’s protracted multimedia tour, I drove to the mother root of American industry, the city that, as its historical literature puts it, “gave birth to the modern corporation.” So many of New England’s old textile factories have been gutted and converted into boutique and condo space. But in the 1970s, Lowell, Massachusetts, turned over millions of square feet of abandoned mills to the National Park Service. The 141 acres of factories, boardinghouses, and power canals are now the preserve of the Lowell National Historical Park.
Its centerpiece is the Boott Cotton Mills, “the cathedral of industry,” a red brick behemoth that sits alongside the Merrimack River like a medieval fortress, ensconced within a rampart of thick red brick walls, accessible only by a single bridge spanning a deepwater canal. A huge bell tower presides over the courtyard: for decades, its 4:30 a.m. toll summoned a nearly all-female workforce to a fourteen-hour day. The Boott Mills is now a museum, its exhibition space a reminder of the vast divide between the men who owned it and the women who labored there.
Upstairs, a wing is adorned with large oil portraits of the gentlemen mill proprietors who formed the WASPy Boston Associates. Downstairs, the “weave room,” a sprawling factory floor, has been restored to its early glory (minus the humid, lint-choked air that incubated spectacular rates of tuberculosis and other lung diseases, and minus the mass infestation of cockroaches that swarmed over employees’ clothes and lunch pails). During visiting hours, museum staffers run a portion of the eighty-eight power looms to provide visitors with a modest sense of the earsplitting cacophony. (Even at reduced levels, the museum must dispense earplugs.) On the day I visited, two middle-aged women were operating the clanking looms. As I stood, half-hypnotized by a power shuttle flinging itself back and forth between the warp threads, they came over to ask if I had questions. Several minutes into our conversation, it was apparent that they were no ordinary docents. Francisca DeSousa and Cathy Randall were lifelong mill workers.
The textile factory where DeSousa had worked for more than a quarter century had hightailed it to Mexico, and she’d taken the job at the museum. Randall has continued to work in the few remaining mills, including for a time at one that has made certain adjustments to the times: it weaves carbon fiber for microchips. She was working, that is, at the industrial production end of the empire that Sheryl Sandberg presides over as chief operating officer.
DeSousa, like Randall, started at $3 an hour. Later, she recalled, “they paid you four to five cents per piecework—to make you work faster.” In the course of her employment, she and her husband, who also worked full time, had four children. After she gave birth, “I took one week off, unpaid,” she said. “You didn’t dare take more than that—you’d get fired.”
“There was no vacation time,” Randall recalled of her first job, “no health insurance, no benefits, and no sick days.” After eleven years, she was making $11 an hour. “Now they just don’t give you the forty hours,” she said, “so they don’t have to pay you benefits.”
DeSousa and Randall, like so many mill workers, saw many accidents: women who were mauled, women who lost body parts, women nearly scalped when the loom mechanism seized their hair. On the factory floor one day, Randall witnessed an “amputation”: a young woman’s arm was sucked into the machinery. The memory still haunts her. “She was one of the ones I trained,” she said.
None of these jobs were unionized. At the first mill Randall worked for, she became involved in an organizing effort. The union campaign never came to a vote. “People were too afraid,” she said, recalling how one of the women “came to me crying, ‘Don’t do this, I can’t lose my job.’”
DeSousa led two ad hoc protest efforts of her own. The first was in response to a company announcement that the workers would no longer be given a lunch hour—which was actually a lunch half hour. “I told them we are going to sit down for half an hour, because we deserve it,” she said. At first, her coworkers were leery of taking a stand. “It was hard keeping people together. I mean, I was scared, too—my God, what were they going to do to us?” But finally she convinced her colleagues. “I told them, ‘Listen, if we stick together, they can’t fire all of us.’” After two weeks of sit-downs, the company relented. Then the company announced that mill workers would be required to work overtime on Saturdays. While the women were glad for the extra money, many were single mothers with no weekend day care. “If you didn’t show up on Saturday, they’d give you a yellow slip,” DeSousa recalled, “and after you got several of them, they could fire you.” DeSousa and another mill worker proposed a plan: “We stop all the looms—it’s the only way to get their attention.” The workers did, and a few minutes later, their overlords rushed in. “Even the big bosses from the main office came running.” After a tense negotiation, the women won their fight. DeSousa’s supervisor, though, let her know that she better not try for a third victory. “My boss came over,” DeSousa recalled, “and he said to me, ‘Some day, Norma Rae, I’m going to get you.’”
I asked the two women if they had heard of Lean In. Randall said she had seen a couple of Sandberg’s TV appearances, but didn’t quite understand the message. I told her that Lean In argues that women need to break down “internal obstacles” within themselves that are preventing them from moving up the work ladder. “There are a lot of barriers women face,” Randall said. She ticked off a few: lousy pay, no benefits, no sick leave, no unions, sexism, and a still highly sex segregated workforce. “There are lots of jobs that are still considered women’s work,” she said. “In one of the mills, I was actually referred to as ‘the girl.’”
What Randall described is what most American working women face. And they are also the sort of problems that the advocates of Lean In and its sister impulses must address if they are not to be seen as individual women empowering themselves by deserting other women—if they are to be called, as Sheryl Sandberg calls herself, feminist.
What about “internal obstacles,” I asked Randall—the sort of obstacles that cause women to curb their ambitions because they’re afraid they won’t be likable? She pondered the question for a time. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “That’s just not the world I came from.”
My Questions for Sheryl Sandberg . . . and the Answers from Her PR Department
Q: A number of Lean In’s corporate Platform Partners seem to have a woman problem—most notably (though not alone), the sex-discrimination legal actions against Wal-Mart and Costco. How do you ensure that corporate partners are not signing up as a way of whitewashing (agreeing publicly with the concept of women’s advancement, and securing Lean’s imprimatur, to avoid addressing more systemic problems)? Is there an instance where you’ve said to such a company that you’d be glad to have it as a partner, but only after it cleans up its act? Wouldn’t such a demand be an example of what you champion—that having women in power will benefit ordinary women?
A: We reject this premise. There are over 200 companies who have joined as platform partners, and it seems early to judge their motivations. We are not setting up a watchdog organization or an audit function. Rather, we are providing high-quality educational materials and technology at scale that companies can use to improve their understanding of gender bias. We want to make these materials available to everyone—because every company can get better, and we want them to.
Q: Lean In Circles have been described as peer mentoring and as a sort of consciousness-raising for our times. If a Lean In Circle decides that members of its group have actual grievances with the companies they work for that require a political response, would Lean In be supportive of them taking political or legal action against those companies? Would you, for example, encourage a Lean In Circle to picket a discriminatory employer?
A: Lean In Circles are a starting point, not an endpoint. We are encouraging people to set up Circles and take them where they will through an open and constructive dialogue—and share their learnings with other Circles. Lean In provides a framework but we want each Circle to decide what it does or focuses on, because each Circle is different and has different needs.
Q: Lean In has described itself as a “movement.” Social movements in my experience are all about solidarity and confrontation—that is, a collective response that confronts powerful institutions and people who are holding a group down. What is the confrontation here, and who or what is being confronted? Or does the sort of self-awareness endorsed by Lean In Circles stop when external confrontation begins? Put another way, is the confrontation all with one’s self, to appeal to the corporation?
A: Again, we reject this premise. We are a community that seeks to promote awareness and empower individual, as well as collective, action. Lean In is made up of individuals and organizations coming together to further the common aim of understanding gender bias and helping other women achieve their goals.
Q: Lean In emphasizes individual solutions to problems of individual advancement. How do you keep this focus on individual initiative from undermining an alternative group awareness necessary to fuel an actual movement?
A: This is not a zero-sum solution. It takes both individual and collective initiative. In fact, Lean In makes clear that individuals can facilitate institutional reform. The more people are focused on issues for gender, the more of both there will be. We think Lean In is already demonstrating results—individuals taking action, women asking for and getting raises, companies changing policies. The questions we would ask back is: “Has overall group awareness of these important social issues increased since Lean In launched?” Our answer is that while there is so much more to do, changes have begun.
Susan Faludi is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and, most recently, The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America.
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