Chief Editor: What's the Deal with 'Leaning In'?

Many don't really understand it, and more still haven't even heard of it. So what actually is Sheryl Sandberg's 'lean in' campaign, and why are so many feminists talking about it?

Let me begin by saying that until about an hour ago I’d never heard of the concept of ‘leaning in’. And I’m a relatively well informed feminist – not quite card-carrying (we should make some cards to carry, people), but certainly a street-harasser shaming, body hair cultivating server of truth tea to the denizens of the patriarchal empire. However, until now the apparently simmering ‘lean in’ discussion has slipped under my radar.

The idea of ‘leaning in’ comes from a book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’. From what I can gather without actually having read the book in question, ‘lean in’ is equivalent to ‘do more’. Or, ‘do more just when you were thinking about doing less’. Don’t lean out of your career just because you’ve got married or pregnant, et cetera; lean in even more. Do more, be more, have more.

Which, on the surface at least, is all well and good. It’s a tune we’ve all heard before, in one form or another. But discussion (and confusion) surrounding Sandberg’s book (published in 2013) has continued to boil itself into a writhing gumbo of dialogue between ‘lean in’ haters, and those who think it’s the best thing since sliced suffrage. The discussion is back on the table in recent weeks due to the launch of Sandberg’s #LeanInTogether campaign, aimed at encouraging more men to get involved in the fight for gender equality.

Most of the negative reaction to Sandberg’s book, which sprang out of her popular Ted Talk on women in the boardroom, seems to revolve around the fact that her approach is very much aimed at a certain type of woman. Specifically the affluent, upper middle class, white (and possibly also American) woman.

It also smacks of the ‘American Dream’, in a rather disconcertingly blinkered way; you have the opportunity to ‘better yourself’ – i.e. become richer and more powerful – and therefore it’s your responsibility to do so, and if you fail, well, you probably just didn’t try hard enough, did you? Absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that you started climbing from fifty rungs below everyone else.

Then again, perhaps we’re judging Sandberg’s book by a wider picture she never meant it be a part of. It seems probable that ‘Lean In’ was never intended to tackle root issues, but only to tell one woman’s success story. In which case, it may well be a helpful hitchhiker’s guide for women looking to shoot up the Capitalist ziggurat. But, as Flavia Dzodan primal screamed at us, ‘My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit’.

Again, without having actually read the book, it is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion. However, from the surrounding evidence it looks like what we’ve got here is a rather vague proposal of yet another route for a certain (already privileged) class of women to ‘better themselves’, once again without actually addressing any of the institutionalised issues at work.

As Zoe Williams wrote in her review for the Guardian, “This is not a book about how women can become more equal: this is a book about how women can become more like Sheryl Sandberg.”

Discussion feed

Up next in