UNITEHERE Local 26
Earlier this week, a group of housekeepers, nightclub servers and other employees from a Hilton DoubleTree hotel in Cambridge, which is on a property owned by Harvard, gathered outside the gates of the university while Sheryl Sandberg delivered a speech to this year’s graduates. It was a last ditch attempt by these workers to score a meeting with the Facebook COO, who had already declined their invitation to meet with them and host a “Lean In circle,” saying she didn’t have the time.
What a missed opportunity.
Okay, yes, the invitation to Sandberg was by-and-large a publicity stunt (and a great one, at that) by the union to draw attention to their campaign to organize these workers, 70% of whom have signed a petition asking for “fair process,” according to a story in the Boston Globe.
But behind it was a chance to illustrate, first-hand, the ways in which Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy can apply to all women, including the ones who clean-up the boardrooms and serve coffee at the high-end women’s networking conferences she attends. These workers are looking for a higher wage, affordable health insurance and standardized workloads. A recent survey of the DoubleTree workers by a Harvard student found that every employee suffered from chronic pain as a result of the job and all said their workloads had increased in recent years.
One of the abiding criticisms of Sandbergian feminism is that is elitist, and relies on a sort of trickle-down feminism to help most women: basically, get more female CEOs and the rest will fall in place. Of course, the world doesn’t exactly work like that and with 70% of Americans either living in or on the brink of poverty women, that is something we can’t ignore.
The Lean In foundations rejects these accusations, saying that its model can serve lower-income women as well. According to the Globe, they’ve partnered with Dress for Success, and support Lean In circles of domestic workers in San Francisco and rescued sex slaves in Miami. “The principles of Lean In are just as, if not more, important to women with lower incomes,” Lean In foundation spokeswoman Andrea Saul told the Globe in an e-mail.
Still, meeting with this group would have taken this commitment an important step further. Sandberg and Lean In would not just have been expanding their halo to include working class women, but also the institutions that can help them. In this case that institution is the labor movement. The fact is, it has never been and will never be easy for a nightclub waitress or a housekeeper working for a large corporation to lean in on her own. Let’s put it this way: if someone with an MBA from Harvard needs a book like Sandberg’s to give her the confidence to demand parity in the workplace, you can only imagine what an immigrant women with far less education needs to fighting the same top bosses for what she believes is just.
In her Class Day speech Sandberg told the audience that expectations for solving gender equality are too low today. I agree. I think a large part of the problem is the feeling that we have to go at it alone, and make changes in our lives and homes instead of fighting for systemic ones. But here was a group of women whose expectations were as high as their willingness to fight. Too bad Sandberg didn’t take 20 minutes to help them lean in even harder.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Sheryl Sandberg Leans Out of Hotel Worker Meeting