So I haven’t read Lean In. I’m planning to, however, because it’s getting people talking, which is the first step toward change, and I love that. Kudos to Sheryl Sandberg for writing a book about the difficulties working women, particularly working mothers, face. And kudos to the Lean In conversation for expanding to include the voices of people who are pointing out Sandberg’s privilege, and the difficulties of leaning in when one is facing barriers of race, class, and age. Although I haven’t read the book, I’ve read enough conversation about it to gather that the main point is this: women need to believe in ourselves, to advocate for ourselves, to go bravely into the fray even if we don’t think we’re quite perfect for the job or we’re worried that people might not like us. This is good advice, as women do indeed need to own our power. And yet, as I think about what leaning in might mean for my own life and as I listen to the women who are discussing leaning in, this occurs: leaning in seems to require women to play the male working game harder, faster, and in just the right way. Leaning in, I’ve gathered, is a form of manning up (albeit with the caveat of a good bathroom cry). OK—so be it. But if we’re manning up, is Zuckerberg gonna woman up?
Let me define woman up, since our culture has declined the honor: to woman up is to confront emotional issues that make you uncomfortable. It is to face your fear while also dealing with your fear rather than repressing or denying it. It is to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, and to advocate for others in the process. Along the way, shock of shocks, you can even make some money—leveraging the intellectual power of over half the population tends to do that. You know who womans up like nobody’s business? Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Melinda and Bill Gates also come to mind. These are people who reach out to women who are leaning in, and we need them if we are going to change the system, which is the only way to achieve equality.
Facebook’s Culture of Misogyny
Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, reached out to Sheryl Sandberg as she leaned in to her ambitions. The rest of us? Not so much. Facebook’s misogyny is, in the words of sexist extraordinaire Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, “legend—wait for it—dary!” Oh, yeah. Facebook is like an out-of-control party in your virtual backyard, complete with rape jokes and sexualization of young girls. But never fear: there are no pictures of breasts nourishing children. Because, you know, that would be a total buzzkill.
My first thought when I read about Lean In was, “If Sandberg is concerned about women, why isn’t she dealing with Facebook’s misogyny?” This week, Elizabeth Plank has asked that question in her spot-on article, “Why Facebook Needs to Lean In and Fix Its’ Woman Problem.” I love this article because it gets right to the point: while we can’t expect Ms. Sandberg to speak for every woman, it is disturbing that she has not even mentioned Facebook’s sexism, particularly its promotion of rape culture and the impact it has on women. I encourage you to read this article and participate in the Twitter campaigns Ms. Plank mentions, using the hashtags #SupportTrista and #LeanIn.
It’s important to name the person calling the shots here, the one with more power than Sandberg: Mark Zuckerberg. In her revealing article, “Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins From Leaning In?” former Facebook employee Kate Losse, who has written a book about Facebook’s internal culture entitled Boy Kings, says: “…by launching a feminist platform, Sandberg is able to contain the broader threat that a feminist critique poses to Facebook’s business, simultaneously generating more power for herself and her organization—Silicon Valley “revolution” at its finest. This maneuver, as I learned in my years at Facebook, is how the game is played, and both Sandberg and Zuckerberg play it well.”
Woah. Think about that a minute.
Zuckerberg, boy king extraordinaire of a corporate empire that uses sexism as capitalist fuel, hitches a ride on a feminist platform and gets to keep promoting rape culture all the while. So, do I think Zuckerberg is gonna woman up and tell the cadre of Facebook bullies that they are hurting women, who he so values and wishes to lift up?
Why no, no I do not. At least, not without serious encouragement.
Do I think Sandberg is only playing this game, and has no concern for other women? Absolutely not. I think she genuinely cares about lifting women up, and is playing a man’s game by the man’s rules—just like we all do, to survive and to thrive. If, along the way, we can empower ourselves and others, awesome. But we still have to play the game, right?
What we need, my friends, is systemic change. Sandberg has the power to ask Zuckerberg to use her feminist platform to create cultural change, within the company and for the millions of women who use Facebook. But she might not even be thinking in those terms.
The Lean In conversation has shown itself to be open to expanding dialogue and ideas: one of the things I love about it is that it hasn’t been swallowed up by a sound byte. Let us continue to expand its boundaries by asking Sandberg to woman up and tell Zuckerberg it is time for him to woman up, to reach out to those who are trying to lean in to a system that is stacked against us, all in the name of “hilarious” sexism.
Make no mistake, womaning up will take courage—from Sandberg, from me, from you, from Zuckerberg (who is going to face a posse of angry sexists, just as he has been facing angry feminists). From all of us.
But I just know we’re up to it—otherwise, what’s the point of leaning in at all?