The problem with Sheryl Sandberg's "feminism."
I’ve got a piece out in the Washington Post, a commentary on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism, on the eve of her book Lean In. I’ve been following Sandberg as one of the more visible “women in tech” since she joined Facebook, just one month after I began writing for Gawker’s then-San Francisco based tech blog Valleywag.
Sandberg, along with Marissa Mayer, has served as a stand-in for a “woman in tech,” and now more broadly, as a “powerful woman.” These are roles that, back when their names were known to relatively few people outside the Valley and those who obsess about it, Sandberg and Mayer have played, and I’d argue, both played to and played against, like any woman handed a role that could elevate her as much as rein her in. Mayer says she isn’t a feminist; Sandberg says she is. In playing these roles, they also make for appealing stories of “what it all means” for the media.
But anyone who knows anything about the tech biz knows that this is a (social) media side show, and that feminism will never be one of the “disruptive” values of Silicon Valley so long as Silicon Valley is principally a machine for producing wealth for the few. (See: the story of Katherine Losse, an early Facebook employee who also crossed paths with Sandberg.) To the extent that someone who so benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate environment in which it is exercised.
It’s this limitation that concerns me about the brand of feminism we see in Sandberg — because it’s gaining ascendence, and because we’ve been here before. It’s a trickle-down feminism that centers the concerns of an elite minority of women, and it repeats losing tactics in the history of feminist movements. Sandberg is far from the only prominent feminist who supports these tactics, which — despite their intentions — have been insufficient in addressing inequalities among women. If the book and its attendant publicity had only framed Sandberg’s contribution as something “by and for women in positions of corporate leadership,” I doubt we’d be having this conversation.
The book isn’t out yet, though Connie Schultz has a critical review out (also in the Post), and it affirms the omissions I anticipated based on the materials I had available to me, including Sandberg’s own telling of her leadership trajectory. Here’s one of the most widely-circulated Sandberg quotes on that, from an interview she gave to PBS/AOL for the Makers documentary. You can view it online:
I always thought I would, like, run a social movement. Which meant, basically, I would work in a non-profit.
It’s a telling understanding: of both the qualities of social movement leadership (which few who work within them would call “running” them), as well as where one would find a social movement (incorporated as a 501c3). And it’s another tension that’s too real for those working in movements for social justice — including women’s rights and gender justice — as we try to understand how to actually get change made: outside systems, or within them. And in fact, Sandberg has followed through on this early vision: according to documents obtained by the New York Times in advance of the book’s release, Sandberg has incorporated the related projects around Lean In as a c3. By the strike of her own pen, this is a movement.
But is this a “real” movement? I think the legitimate concerns about what’s being sold as feminism here has got lost in the many meanings of that word, and how little people who have not been part of movements understand their function. I got my own movement education first as an activist, then while working at an explicitly feminist foundation. So for my part, I wonder what this might mean for those already working in movements on these issues, who struggle for visibility and funding, and who will likely never (and perhaps would never want to) attract the kind of media attention and corporate partners that Sandberg has found in Lean In. Will their work be made any easier? Will they find new allies? Or will they be told, as they have been for decades even by those who claim they work alongside them, that what they want is still impossible?
And what would Sandberg say if she were told the same?