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The Limits Of ‘Lean In’ Empowerment

In an interview with USA Today, Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook fame, admitted that “[i]n terms of women in leadership roles, we are not better off” than four years ago, when her bestselling book “Lean In” was published. Sandberg does not appear to have turned away from the approach the book suggests, namely getting women to be more assertive (careful, but assertive. Her goal is still “that women run half our companies and countries and men run half our homes.” That said, personal experiences — specifically, the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg — led her, she explains to USA Today, to a deeper understanding of single mothers’ challenges.

While it’s fair game to question the “Lean In” philosophy as a feminism for the masses (or even, evidently, for high-powered women professionals), it’s also important to remember that businesswomen face an expectation of enlightened, empowering politics that their male equivalents do not. In a Buzzfeed piece that briefly mentions Sandberg but focuses on other women entrepreneurs, Doree Shafrir offers a spot-on description of how women in business who make empowerment their brand wind up setting themselves (and their brands) up for failure:

The narratives of women like [Sophia] Amoruso [of Nasty Gal] and [Miki] Agrawal [of Thinx] — young, attractive, charismatic, and saying all the right things about the role of women in today’s workplace — are compelling, and these stories follow a pattern: These women are written about adoringly when they’re on their way up, because we want to root for them, because they challenge the notion that company founders need to be male and that workplaces can’t be feminist. Then, when they’re on their way down, the articles quoting disgruntled employees about their once-venerated feminist founders’ shortcomings come fast and furious, and people certainly seem to take a particular delight in reading them.

What I like so much about Shafrir’s piece is that it doesn’t simply add to the pile-on in question, but suggests instead that we look critically at all business leaders’ actions: “[I]t’s worth asking,” she writes, “why we’re so ready to lionize anyone — man, woman, or otherwise — just because they say all the right things.” That skepticism strikes me as appropriate and fair.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected]. She is the author of “The Perils Of ‘Privilege’”, from St. Martin’s Press. Follow her on Twitter, @tweetertation

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