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Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In Philosophy Doesn't Just Ignore Disadvantaged Women. It Hurts Their Cause.

Eric Piermont / AFP

In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and has since gone about converting its philosophy into a widely recognizable brand of feminism. The thesis of Sandberg’s approach is that women, socialized by gender stereotypes to be submissive, miss out on workplace success due to misplaced insecurity, passivity, and docility. Whereas boys are rewarded for aggressive leadership and thus become successful leaders as adults, Sandberg posits, girls are accused of being “bossy” for the very same behaviors, and are discouraged from pursuing leadership as adults. For kids and grown-ups alike, Sandberg imagines a world in which everyone pursues an equal share of leadership roles in the workplace, unencumbered by gender stereotypes: this is the lean-in brand. And on Thursday of last week, Sandberg launched the latest in the Lean In line: #leanintogether.

Like its predecessor #leanin, #leanintogether seeks to improve women’s lives and working conditions through individual improvements, this time calling upon men to do their part for gender equality by helping out more at home and rejecting gendered slights at work. And yet, like the campaign that came before it, #leanintogether presents problems as well as promise. The idea that ambition shouldn’t be hampered by gender is so commonplace as to need little defense; regardless, it is worthwhile to say it’s an idea I agree with, and one that Sandberg’s feminist critics do not object to. The same goes for the call for dads to be involved at home. Yet there’s still much to criticize in Sandberg’s vision, and the latest rehashing of her philosophy has given rise to the same criticism expressed only two years ago—that as Sarah Leonard recently told The New Yorker's Vauhini Vara, Sandberg’s strategy of “making the corporate world more hospitable to women by appealing to male bosses and colleagues to change their policies and behavior won’t necessarily help women in lower-wage jobs.”

The idea of feminism rests on the notion that all women can be united on the axis of their womanhood, and that our collective lot can be improved by boosting the place of that axis in the matrix of society. What will make things easier for women, therefore, will make things easier for an individual woman. But the reverse, moving from the individual to the general, is not true: What makes life easier for an individual woman will not necessarily make life easier for women at large. In the case of Sandberg’s corporate feminism, what makes life easier for any given woman high on the corporate ladder might actually make life harder for women toiling near the bottom rungs.

Consider, for example, the problem of maternity leave. In lean-in fashion, she argues that women should have honest and open negotiations with their HR departments about maternity benefits, so that staffing and projects can be planned around their absences. Her suggestion is not ridiculous. With flexibility on the employer’s part and commitment on the employee’s part, Sandberg imagines, women can make it through the early months of their kids’ lives without missing out on all the good promotions, or worse, losing their jobs altogether. But many women don't have the kind of job that allow them to make such demands. As Caroline Fredrickson observes in her forthcoming book Under the Bus: How Working Women are Being Run Over, many women in low-income work—domestic work, care work, farm work, small business, and women who are immigrants—are excluded from full legal status as employees.

For these women, the ideal solution would be universal paid maternity leave funded by the state. This is where their interests clash with the interests of women in Sandberg’s position, whose companies might, in light of a universal paid maternity leave program, reduce their cushy, individually negotiated programs and instead direct employees to the federally funded alternative. In fact, this very argument against a universal paid maternity leave mandate was proposed by the conservative YG Network in their 2014 policy manual Room to Grow. “This new federal entitlement,” Carrie Lukas warns, “would encourage businesses currently providing paid leave programs—including more generous leave packages—to cease doing so.” For the neutral onlooker, basic universal maternity leave for all would surely trump generous maternity packages for a select few, but this is only the case when imagining benefits in collective terms. Sandberg's vision is far more individualistic.

Thus, when women in high-income jobs find themselves following Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and negotiating plush maternity arrangements, they might also find themselves politically neglecting a universal maternity leave program. These wealthier women and their families are the ones with the money and influence to push ad campaigns and dabble in politics—that is, they're the ones with the power to effect change for all women. But they're not likely to wield their power in that way. Sandberg's corporate feminism preaches individual female empowerment in the workplace (and now at home, too) rather than collective social action, and women who subscribe to that approach are more likely to funnel resources into advanced education and leadership training rather than into the machinery of politics and protest.

Which is not to say that women who do lean in and manage to secure better working conditions and benefits have done anything wrong, or that they haven’t achieved anything positive whatsoever. It is only to point out that the advancement of a particular class of women doesn’t merely leave another class out, but can actively militate against their interests. If we can create and sustain a campaign for women’s ambitions in the workplace, surely we can design a campaign to question why we don’t socially value childbearing enough to provide generous universal benefits to support it, or why we insist on delivering a mess of universally required benefits through employers when not everyone works, and not everyone who works is considered an employee. And yet, despite the fact that women at large lose out when strategies like #leanintogether are advanced, these individualist efforts, by nature of benefitting some well-placed women, still proceed under the banner of feminism.