Melissa Torres-Montoya, Guest Blogger, LSRJ Reproductive Justice Fellow (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)
“Lay back,” “chill out,” “kick back,” these are terms that as a Californian I’m used to hearing, not “lean in.” So when I was invited to a brunch to hear from Sheryl Sandburg, the COO of Facebook, who is encouraging women to “lean in,” I was curious to learn what she meant. I attended the brunch with an open mind. I was excited, but I was skeptical. I was excited because I was looking forward to learning more about a woman who prompted the bad ass Time Magazine headline, “Don’t hate her because she’s successful; Facebook’s Sheryl Sandburg and her mission to reboot feminism.” I was skeptical because I wondered how she, a corporate woman, was rebooting feminism by encouraging women to “lean in.” Lean into what? The idea that a woman from corporate America is “rebooting feminism” and bringing “feminism” into the mainstream thrilled me. Attending this event was a no brainer.
I am a recently graduated lawyer, a reproductive justice advocate, and a feminist. I’ve noticed though that it appears as if the term “feminism” has been abandoned or viewed as antiquated. A close friend of mine was shocked when recently only she and her professor self-identified as a feminist in a class of 50. That’s shocking to me too and a little scary because it makes me wonder if with the name, the principles of feminism will also be shelved. And now here is a powerful woman, Sheryl Sandburg, in corporate America talking about feminism – I think having female leaders talking about feminism is critical to keeping feminist principles alive and key to achieving feminist goals.
On the other hand, I went to the brunch feeling quite skeptical of Sandburg’s message of “lean in.” Is she blaming women for not being aggressive enough? Or is she encouraging women to be more aggressive instead of advocating that society transform to better support the advancements and success of everyone, inclusive of the differing characteristics they may have, in the workforce? Despite these very valid concerns, I think it is worth listening to what she has to say, which includes the word feminism!
During the bunch, Sandburg explained that she was not trying to blame women for not leaning in. Instead, she identified a problem we can all agree on – the scarcity of women in leadership positions.
I was surprised by how much I related to many of Sandberg’s anecdotes, both in childhood and as a young professional. She shared a comical story from one of her weddings; her younger siblings toasted her by saying “Although, most will know us as her younger siblings, in reality we were her first employees.” While it was a fun take on their interactions as kids, she explained that it also spoke to a societal issue – her tendency to organize children at play was viewed as bossy rather than possessing the talent of leadership. She asked us, how many times do you hear people call little boys bossy? We don’t. I share this so-called “bossy trait” aka leadership with Sheryl Sandburg and many other women. As a child, when organizing our play time, some friends benevolently called me the social director, while others called me “bossy.”
The fact that society still defines women and men differently for the same characteristics is a problem and Sandburg urged we, as a society, to do a better job of furthering gender parity by helping women develop into leaders. We should support leadership traits in young girls, encourage them to “lean in” by taking initiative and being “bossy or bold,” as well as encouraging men to possess such traits traditionally thought of as female, like being nurturing. This I can get down with. If she said “hey, women, it’s a man’s world, buck up and act like a man,” I’d have a problem with that.
I also think it’s a valid critique that her “lean in” catch phrase may only apply to a limited scope of privileged women. I can think of many women in various circumstances who would not likely find Sandburg’s advice useful in overcoming their struggles. I acknowledge the legitimacy of Sandburg’s point that the contrast between female academic achievement and the number of female CEOs at Fortune 500s highlights a wrong in our culture, but as a reproductive justice advocate I understand that the racial, gender, economic, political, and cultural oppression that women experience everyday in American cannot be waived away with a mere “lean in.” Her concept applies to too few and oversimplifies the issue.
Sandburg also discussed the challenges that parents face when in leadership roles, which is an issue particularly relevant to me as a young professional who hopes to have children one day and as a reproductive justice advocate. She shared her story of pursuing her career while also being a parent and handling all the responsibilities that come along with both. This part of her conversation identified ways we need to shape the workforce to better support women as they pursue careers in corporate America, like supporting flexible work schedules so women are better able to parent their children. Other countries, have policies that support a healthy balance between work and families. Women face many challenges in attempting to balance work and family.
As a reproductive justice advocate, I work to ensure that all people have the ability to decide whether, when and how to have or parent a child with dignity. We need to create this environment of dignity that supports working and parenting; and where women feel like they are doing both effectively. A crucial step in achieving this is a national conversation that sparks collaboration, stimulates corporate shifts, and prompts legislative changes. By no means is this “lean in” concept a fix for everything, but I do believe that the book and the media attention around it, is pushing the national conversation on these issues and this is a significant and important contribution to feminism and reproductive justice.