Sheryl Sandberg Invites Men to “Lean In” to Corporate Feminism

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In “movement” has entered a new phase of inclusivity, urging men to “Lean In” to nurturing, laundry, and helping the women in their lives “Lean In” to their careers. Lean In Together is a celebrity-studded, NBA-endorsed, and New York Times op-ed-endowed celebration of the benefits that feminism can offer men. “It’s Time to Talk About the Other 50%: Men!” the email in my inbox promised, directing me to LeanInTogether.org, a site that offers practical tips for men embracing feminism at work and at home.

Celebrities like Lena Dunham and her boyfriend Jack Antonoff have gotten in on the action — as so have Condoleezza Rice, a number of NBA players like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and brands like Virgin and AOL.

When it comes to judging Lean In, I’m on the fence. Basically, I feel that Sandberg’s so-called feminist manifesto is simply a practical self-help manual for bougie career woman in disguise. I hate that it’s marketed as a movement, using movement language, but I have personally found sound advice embedded in Sandberg’s words on gender and ambition. Similarly, I actually think the tips that Sandberg offers men are useful, to an extent. Take this one, for how to treat female co-workers:

Listen for the language of the likeability penalty, including that a woman is “political” or “pushy.” When you hear biased language, request a specific example of what the woman did and then ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?” In many cases, the answer will be no. Remember that you can also fall into these bias traps, so think carefully about your own response to female coworkers.

And for home, I appreciate this common-sense tip. Who wouldn’t?

Approach the responsibilities of child care and housework as real partners. Commit to do your fair share of daily chores, and make sure work is split evenly. Don’t wait to be asked—step up when you see dishes in the sink or laundry piling up.

Accompanying each of these tips are statistics demonstrating the reality of sexism and also the amazing benefits of feminism. “DID YOU KNOW?” one side box asks. “Fathers who help with household chores are more likely to raise daughters who believe they have a broader range of career options.”

Beyond the very class-exclusive and extremely heteronormative assumption about what a family looks like, none of these tips is distasteful in and of itself. Yet there is something depressing about efforts to sell a social movement to the masses based on the awesome “results” it will have. “Cease and desist discrimination because … it’s good for business! Don’t be a jerk to ladies, because…. it will actually help you get laid!” Not that these promised benefits aren’t real. Of course, equal treatment produces encouraging results — namely, equality! But presumably we should afford each other fair treatment because all people are deserving of fairness, not because it will be great for business. And turning family relationships and decisions into a business model creates the kind of environment where, as the Washington Post reports today, “egg-freezing parties” for professional women are advertised with the slogan: “Lean In. But Freeze First.”

Again, I think that Sandberg is onto something, in that the feminist revolution will be as much about expanding nurturing as a value as it will be about celebrating women’s strength. But her coziness with the titans of capitalism makes it hard to imagine that such a revolution will ever be possible on Lean In’s watch, since capitalism is the opposite of nurturing, caring, or freeing. Many writers have delved into the hires the company has made and the partnerships it has forged in order to point out that feminism and big business simply don’t go that well together. As Julia Carrie Wong writes,

the assertion that “equality is not a zero-sum game” belies a fundamental hollowness at the core of Lean In Together’s brand of feminism that ignores the realities of our capitalist society where resources and power are finite. One need only look at Sandberg’s examples in the business world to see where this analysis falls short. We’re told that gender equality in the workplace leads to higher profits, but profit doesn’t grow on trees. That money is being extracted from somewhere, and in the case of Lean In Together’s corporate partners like Target, it’s coming from the exploitation of labor of factory workers overseas and retail workers at home.

It is strange and deeply frustrating, as Rebecca Traister recently noted, that Silicon Valley and other giant tech corporations, hardly paragons of progressive values, are actually leading the way on good maternity and paternity leave policies. Fabulous for them, and for their employees, of course. But why is responsible treatment of gender issues in the workplace the province of elite companies only? No one needs sensible family-friendly policies more than those on the bottom of the ladder, working multiple jobs. I don’t see Lean In trickling down anytime soon, nor do I imagine Sandberg will embrace Fast Food Forward. Emily Greenhouse also points out a fundamental flaw in the safe, corporate, apolitical tack Sandberg is taking in a piece called, “How Sheryl Sandberg Turning Feminism into a Tech Brand”:

Lean In’s communications director, Andrea Saul, came from the political domain: She had worked as Mitt Romney’s presidential-campaign press secretary, and also at various times for Carly Fiorina, Orrin Hatch, and John McCain. But Saul, when I put the question to her, declined to articulate Lean In’s political aspirations. She told me that “supporting women is a nonpartisan issue.” When I asked about the role Lean In might play in the politics of abortion and reproductive rights, she paused. “I think that’s a conversation for another day.”

So, yes, it’s all very well — wonderful, even! — for men to help with the laundry at home, but helping women determine their own reproductive destinies by ensuring their legal right to abortion and contraception may be more important on a broad scale. And the likability penalty at work is real, but without talking about racism, homophobia, and other factors that complicate interactions even further for women at work, attempts to combat it won’t change much of anything. As I noted in the case of the executive who recently apologized for her former mistreatment of mothers, the solution to broad-based discrimination against women isn’t just for everyone to try to be nicer. It’s new legal protections and workplace policies.

So there’s nothing wrong with gently prodding your favorite man to read Lean In Together’s tip sheet. It might even help him. But let’s be honest: the real, all-encompassing gender revolution will not be branded, and union-busting companies will be running away from it, screaming, rather than clamoring to get in on the hashtag.