Leaning In: Grappling with Privilege & Structural Reform


In reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I found many lessons that were highly applicable to my own life. Her words provided encouragement to stay confident and to push forward for my dream career rather than stepping back at a young age to focus instead on family and marriage. And yet, I found myself ultimately deeply skeptical of her intrinsic argument for a variety of reasons.

 First, although Sandberg herself acknowledges this, her book largely applies only to the 1% — to privileged women who have had the opportunity to pursue higher education and who have the option of building a successful career. Her lessons do not apply to the vast majority of women in America or even around the world, who are poor, struggling to even find minimum wage jobs, who are subject to domestic and gender-based violence, who are new immigrants lacking basic financial security. Her arguments also make the assumption not just of economic advantage, but heterosexuality. Lean In is entirely targeted towards women in traditional, heterosexual relationships, who desire to have children and have a traditional conception of ‘family.’ But what of women who do not fit this mold?

 I do agree that a criticism of feminism through the portrayal of (and attack of) the “wealthy white feminist woman” is itself a stereotypical construction, since the majority of white women are also poor and systematically battered in their homes. Much of the gender violence occurring today in the U.S. to white women – such as the recent rape of Daisy Coleman in Maryville, MO – is no less horrific than what is happening around the world to women of color. And yet, Sandberg is specifically targeting heterosexual women of privilege, not just white women. She focuses on getting women who are already economically privileged into the top positions; in the process, she not only ignores the needs of women who are in positions of socioeconomic disadvantage, but she also misses a key point, which is that simply placing already advantaged women into the topmost leadership positions will not change much about our society. Inequality will only be reduced if we address the roots of inequality, and focusing on getting privileged women into positions of even greater privilege does not do so.

Second, Sandberg’s critique is a highly individualistic one that serves to perpetuate inequality through our country’s capitalist structure. She buys in completely to our capitalistic economic model, focused on getting ahead rather than a true balance of work and life. She never pauses to ask the question of whether our current model is even the right one. Most of all, she places the onus squarely on women themselves to correct the power imbalances in our country and to right the dismal statistics showing so few women in positions of top leadership in business, finance, law, academia, and politics. Sandberg urges women to remain confident, not to step back too early from a burgeoning career to instead care for family, and to find the ‘right’ spouse who will be supportive and shoulder an equal burden at home.

Yet, for all this to happen, the opportunities have to be there in the first place; societal expectations and our current socioeconomic structure must change. A dramatic societal shift is needed: currently, far fewer men than women stay home to take care of children, and men generally do not spend equal time on household chores. The reality is that the majority of men “do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job,” as Anne Marie Slaughter observes in her piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” As she notes, every male Supreme Court justice has a family – but two of the three female justices are single with no children. Although men are regularly supportive and encouraging, on a statistical scale they are still less likely to take a step back in their career to prioritize family. Yet, there are reasons for this too: employers penalize men who attempt to cut back their careers for personal reasons. Further, social stereotypes and expectations continue to preference rigid gender roles for both men and women.  I believe the blame lies more in patriarchy as a whole than the attitudes of individual men.

But any societal shift towards a more equitable division in household labor will only happen if our policies radically shift. Our government must, to begin with, provide equal paid parental leave for mothers and fathers.  Currently, mothers and fathers are not guaranteed any paid leave, and only 11.4% of workplaces in the U.S. provide paid parental leave. Since employers tend to assume women shoulder the burden, maternity leave is more common than paid paternity leave, leading to further inequality. In comparison, France and the Netherlands provide 112 days of paid maternity and paternity leave at 100% pay. As noted in the article, “In Sweden, Men Can Have It all,” a shift in the laws related to parental leave and childcare could easily lead to a significant societal shift over time by normalizing and legitimizing the decision of men to spend more time at home, thus lessening the burden on mothers and making the choice of leaning in actually possible.

Yet, Sandberg does not pay much attention to such need for structural reform, instead choosing to focus on the individual. This parlays into the prevalent idea of the American dream – that if women work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they can achieve anything. Sandberg’s philosophy – assuming women can choose from various prime job options, that they can choose a truly supportive spouse, that women can even choose when exactly in their career to have children – is premised on those very same ideas of individuality, freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, the reality is very different than Sandberg’s construction of choice, opportunities, and freedom, and most women throughout the world lack real choice in making decisions related to their own careers and bodies due to historical disadvantage including an intersection of racism, sexism, poverty, and violence.  Without addressing the root of this disadvantage, putting privileged women into positions of greater power will not necessarily make our society fundamentally more equal.


6 Responses to Leaning In: Grappling with Privilege & Structural Reform

  1. […] Leaning In: Grappling with Privilege & Structural Reform […]

  2. Great post! Your blog/writings are very inspiring and I look forward to following your journey.

  3. Adam Pumm says:

    Excellent post, Akhila! Share your critique — Sandberg could definitely say more about systems.

  4. Nathalie says:

    Great point and very often a concern of mine. I fully agree that what Sandberg calls for is not (and should not) become a reality for most women. Women too often bear the career cost to a more balanced life and it should not have to be so. I really appreciate your point that, in this debate, the main missed point is the prominent inequality between men and women ability to choose career over family. There have been a lack of acknowledgment of this gap and a lack of concrete suggestion to remedy this gap. Establishing mandatory paternity leave would certainly be an important first step towards better equality. In Sweden, for example, it is part of the culture that women gets to have long maternity leaves while being able to return to their career; paternity leave is also the norm there. This example would be worth being more widespread. On a small note, you mentioned Netherlands as a good example for paternity leave; while it’s true they have 100% paid paternity leave; it is only for 2 days (which is almost nothing). In Belgium, paternity leave is 10 days (3 days of which is 100% paid and the remaining 7 at 82%). Both examples are better than nothing, but largely insufficient to my opinion.

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