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Leaning In to the Patriarchy?

Leaning In to the Patriarchy?

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There are a lot of universal truths in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of feminism for the working woman, #LeanIn. In 2013, she published a book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’ that asks women to “sit at the table”, or “lean in.” She laid bare the hard-hitting truth that women are socialized into being less successful at work through the effects of gender-normative behaviour.

Lean In highlighted the troubling leadership ambition gap between the sexes. Unmistakably, this gap manifests when women learn that they are being socially taxed for displaying the same “bossy” traits that men do in order to get ahead in the workplace. In response, Sandberg asks that we “lean in” by being more assertive, and to move towards a leading, rather than a following, role. With her establishment of Lean In circles, perhaps Sandberg’s biggest contribution is that she has empowered many women to admit that they want career success and helped them build the confidence that it takes to get there.

At a time when feminist discourse is not popular, Lean In has dominated the bestseller charts worldwide and made subtle gender discrimination within the workplace far more visible. With her easygoing, agreeable nature and her commitment towards being both a business leader and a full-time mother, Sandberg singlehandedly humanized the image of the “boss lady” who is stereotypically perceived to be an emotionally barren, unmarried, and unforgiving woman. With over 21,000 Lean In circles across 97 countries, Lean In feminism has taken off and soared amongst a following of quintessential 21st century working women. Oprah Winfrey goes as far as to dub Sandberg as “the new voice of revolutionary feminism.”

 

Image via Huffington Post

 

Aside from Sandberg’s palpable role model effect, perhaps the reason why Lean In resonates so well with the current generation is because it places the autonomy back in the hands of women, and gives them assurance that they could change their own fate. Lean In asks women to question their internalized sexism and modify their own behavior to adapt to the system. It doesn’t ask of them to dismantle the patriarchy that entraps them, nor its capitalistic structure that further ensnares them in their own oppression.

It is telling that the definition of feminism within Lean In begins and ends with achieving gender equality within the system. We need not challenge the structures of the imperialist, racist, capitalist patriarchy we live in; instead, we feed into it.

While the impact of Lean In, as well as Sandberg herself, has been positively admirable, as a feminist blueprint it is deeply flawed. As a self-proclaimed feminist manifesto, its approach makes it seem as if women’s lack of endurance and adaptability were the problem, rather than the systemic inequality. Structural barriers to access equal opportunities do not just disappear when women set their minds to do something with gusto.

It is rarely the case that privileged men within the system will merrily extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to women if only they had the determination to “lean in”.

For every Sheryl Sandberg, we have an Ellen Pao who leaned in, played by the rules of the system and ended up losing a gender discrimination suit against her Silicon Valley firm. So, as far as being a model for gender equality, Lean In is a small patchwork on a disintegrating quilt.

 

Image via Wall Street Journal

 

What is also glaring about advising “all women” to work within the confines of capitalism is that this is a platform that best serves privileged women, who often experience more solidarity with privileged men, than they do with poor women or women of colour.  With a personal worth just shy of USD 1 billion, two Harvard degrees and having been declared by Forbes as the fifth most powerful woman in the world, Sandberg’s approach to workplace empowerment is decidedly privileged as well.

She is privileged enough to be able to successfully negotiate her paid maternity leave plan, a closer parking spot and better working hours by leaning in. Women in low-income professions simply do not have the bargaining power that a corporate executive may hold with their superiors. OECD reports that 73.8% of the Malaysian workforce is composed of low-skilled labour and with female labour participation at only 53.6%, the majority of female workers would not be able to access such workplace benefits by leaning in.

Sandberg is also privileged enough to have had a supportive spouse who was willing to share the household work and the raising of their children (up until his untimely passing a few years ago). Findings from research up to the year 2000 show that almost 1 million families in Malaysia are being raised by single mothers who cannot access that same support structure. In fact, many women with spouses still do not have the privilege of support; the Malaysia Human Development 2013 report evidenced that most women had to quit their jobs in order to take care of their children and household.

Understandably, the under-representation of women in any sector is still a feminist issue. But to the extent that the solution fuels a capitalistic structure that sustains gender inequality in other ways, Lean In bolsters the patriarchal design.

 

Image via ABC News

 

Women are far more likely to have household responsibilities than men, but those work will never be compensated in a capitalistic free market. Women are overrepresented in low-paid service industries. Women are more likely to have financial dependants which curbs their ability to pursue educational and skills enrichment for career advancement. Women are more likely to be unemployed altogether and to be fully reliant on social security. Thus, to focus on the plight of wealthy, employed women within the capitalistic structure would not only be short-sighted, it subverts feminist goals by marketing a false sense of equality through abolishing the glass ceiling for women at the very top of their careers.

On top of that, a capitalist feminism pushes for a class bias that does not reflect the diversity of female aspirations in society, nor does it address the sexist attitudes displayed in the everyday treatment of female colleagues in ways that are not reflected by the pay gap.

While Lean In does speak to its male readers by asking fathers to take a bigger role in their home life, at no point does it offer men any admonition on how to unlearn their sexist thinking within the workplace.

The problem with gender prejudice is that it is normalized into one’s subconscious; that without active self-interrogation of one’s decisions, or having their privilege called out by a third party or through structural reform, it goes unchecked. That sexism trickles down to hiring processes, performance assessments, job promotions and the granting of valuable opportunities in the workplace. Lamenting for women to try harder in a system that systematically disadvantages them might be a pragmatic move, but with trifling payoff and a demoralizing milieu.

To lean in is perfectly rational. It pursues self-advancement in a way that is appealing, commonsensical and practicable. But what’s necessary is never easy. The social, political, and economic solution for gender equality has to rest on the elevation of all women through the dismantling of the patriarchy. What will make things easier for all women will remove the structural barriers for each individual woman. But the reverse is not true: what makes life easier for one individual woman will not necessarily make things easier for women at large. Instead, by leaning into the patriarchy, we may end up making it harder for others to revolt against it.

 

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