What I Would Say if I Weren’t Afraid: “Lean In” Reviewed


Editorial Note (5/1/14): I no longer stand by the views I expressed here but leave the article up because I don’t want to hide the historical record of my writing. There are some thoughts in here that I still believe have merit– the use of sociological research in Lean In, the issue of impostor syndrome and my thoughts on it, the fact that different feminists can work different “sides of the street” without being accused of selling out, etc.– but I have come to the conclusion that Sandberg’s philosophy is a very imperfect vehicle for these issues and that the bad of “Lean In” as a political-personal enterprise outweighs the good. The reasons for this have been expressed quite well in articles like one linked in the comments on this piece. I leave this piece up because my blog is a record of my writing and development, but I wanted to make my current views clear.

A good friend of mine captured a certain zeitgeist best when she said that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was “feminism on one limo a day.” Considering Sandberg’s position as a white cis het billionaire at the pinnacle of neoliberal society, the caricature seemed both inevitable and apt. What could she possibly have to say about American women, gender in the workplace, and feminism itself that wouldn’t be both horribly inaccurate at best and monstrously inaccurate at worst? Surely this book, billed as a self-help guide to help businesswomen succeed through confidence and force of will (‘women are holding themselves back’ was an oft heard refrain in Sandberg’s elevator speech about Lean In), would be another individualist nightmare that would be yet another mess for academics and real feminists to clean up as best we could.

I purchased it to keep up with the debate and because Lean In had potentially huge implications for my field; I’ve been studying and researching in the area of gender in the workplace for almost two years now. I went at it with a sociological eye, my mental red pen raised high and ready. This would be a safari in reverse; the Latina trans woman from the Bronx would don her pith helmet and survey this strange and wonderful world of white, bourgeois heteronormative privilege, return with her field notes and write a blistering polemic to join all the others.

What I found stunned me. My mental red pen became a very literal purple one that began underlining all the lines I found quotable or that had my head bobbing as if to a phantasmal soundtrack. As I read, I owned up to the fact that I purchased the book because it had called to me; that very day I was having a discussion with my advising professor about when and whether I should, perhaps, maybe, tentatively, own my work and claim the title of “sociologist.” We’d been talking about the book and I joked this was my “Lean In moment.” When the laughter subsided, however, I realised there was something to that offhanded remark. I went to Barnes & Noble after that very meeting.

A Pom-Pom Woman for Sociology

Suffice it to say, I feel the book has been misrepresented, even by certain other feminists. But the most important way it has been misrepresented is as a book that is solely about individual women, ignorant in its uniquely privileged way about social structure and constraint. In reality, the book is cited better than some texts assigned in sociology classes; Sandberg jokes that she is now a “pom pom girl for feminism,” but in her own terms she is a pom-pom woman for social science as well. I was stunned at how much of the very research I was prepared to throw in her face was actually being cited back to me in the book—including some studies I’d not yet had the pleasure of reading.

In 172 brief pages she gives us less a self-help manual than a guidebook for women (and men) to see (and hack) social structure. The impressive cites are aimed at proving to the reader that sexism is not simply contained in consciously prejudicial individuals, but is in fact a social force that operates at the level of groups and institutions, and at the individual level it is often expressed subconsciously. Again and again she makes the case that stereotypes structure perception in a way that works to the detriment of women.

For instance, one of my pre-read criticisms of Lean In was that if women ‘lean in,’ we are called strident, shrill, bitches, aggressive, unlikeable, ice queens, and worse. We simply aren’t rewarded for assertiveness the same way that men are. And yet the very research I’d use to prove that point was being summarised and cited right there in Lean In itself. Far from ignoring this structural reality, Sandberg was teaching her readers about it:

“If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent… this creates a huge stumbling block for women. Acting in stereotypically feminine ways makes it difficult to reach for the same opportunities as men, but defying expectations and reaching for those opportunities leads to being judged as undeserving and selfish.”

With simple language like this, she introduces basic feminist insights to a mainstream audience that may not have been exposed to them before. At bottom, feminist epistemology exposes gender as a social structure and not simply what individuals do. Sexism is a social practise, reinforced through commonsense ideas, norms, and subconscious biases given to us by that taken-for-granted perspective on the world. It’s a point Sandberg makes with less lugubrious language. She should be applauded for this.

In the text, findings are explained digestibly and make their point well; in the notes, Sandberg and her writing assistant Nell Scovell acquit themselves with aplomb by expanding on those summaries with the same acumen I expect of actual social researchers—and it’s all there in black and white in a mass-market book.

Time and again “social scientists” are quoted as authorities on important issues; the hard work of many a feminist social scientist is put up in lights and their precious findings are reaching a far larger audience than JSTOR could ever hope to summon. This is a vital public moment for gender sociologists; so many of us fret about promoting our discipline and broadening the audience for our findings. Sheryl Sandberg, much to my pleasant surprise, has done us a tremendous favour in this regard.

A Woman is Not a List

At the beginning of this article I gave a list of characteristics I often use to define myself (or my ‘social location,’ if you prefer)—trans, Latina, working class, queer, and measured these against Sandberg’s—white, rich, cis, het. While I talk a good game about sisterhood, I thought this gap was too broad a chasm to bridge.

I was happy to be proven wrong—and reminded of my other thoughts on “woman” as an identity category. We are our diversity. It is the patriarchal myth that we are all slight variations on the pedestalised alabaster angel, or else complete failures (in the case of women of colour, trans women, poor women, etc.). In reality, we as women are complex and difficult to pin down; to the extent feminism organises around the concept, it is increasingly with this vision of womanhood in mind that we organise “for women.” Not an ideal, but a complexity. A contradiction, even.

Thus it was that I saw myself in Sandberg’s words, not as an aspirational exercise in ‘identifying with the oppressor’ but as a woman who’d experienced a great deal at school and in various workplaces. There was no hope of her even mentioning trans people, but I am still a woman.

We are not lists; or, rather, we are not lists that can be weighted against each other like balance sheets. That isn’t actually how privilege and power work.

Her lengthy discussion of the “impostor syndrome” spoke to me very deeply:

“[W]omen feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found for who they really are—impostors with limited skills or abilities. … Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

This was the moment, 28 pages in, that I took off the pith helmet and said ‘right on, sister.’ And much to my surprise, there was a bridge where once had been only a chasm.

Sisterhood is a rather shocking thing. It’s how I can find myself in both This Bridge Called My Back and Lean In. Women’s experiences-as-epistemology written from opposite ends of power structures, one very critically radical, one very liberal; both about women’s authentic worlds. That is how I could see myself in the pages of both books. “Womanhood” describes a lived reality that can and does transcend oppression’s manifold divisions and antimonies.


Last week I submitted my first book proposal, at the eleventh hour as any good writer should. But there had been a moment of profound doubt mixed with the languid draw of lethargy; I was 90% done, but was it really worth finishing? This book, outspoken and radical—transfeminism, gasp!—was surely not what anyone was looking to publish, so why bother? The proposal was a rookie effort anyway, not good enough. I’m not like real writers, not like actual, good, intelligent academic feminists. This is just me “me too-ing” and that’s that.

Two close friends nudged—okay, forcefully and lovingly shoved—me over the finish line. And as I hammered away feverishly at the keyboard, determined to not let this opportunity pass me by, I heard Sandberg’s voice from the pages of Lean In. “Writing this book is not just me encouraging others to lean in. This is me leaning in. Writing this book is what I would do if I weren’t afraid.”

If I weren’t afraid, I’d pitch a book about transfeminism and video gaming. So I did.

This article is also what I would write if I weren’t afraid—weren’t afraid of call out culture, accusations of “selling out” or identifying with oppression, or capitalist collaboration, or ignoring umpteen thousand critiques, or failing to get it exactly right, or failing to cite this, that, and the other, or ignoring this writer or this scholar, or this blogger. If I wasn’t afraid of that, even for just a brief, foolish moment, this is what I’d write. So I am.

Now about all of that…

Sides of the Street: The Division of Feminist Labour

Sandberg’s book was—notably, before it even hit shelves—roundly criticised and condemned, becoming a byword for privilege and ‘by your bootstraps’ boosterism that was feminism-lite at best and actively harmful to working women at worst. I can categorically say it is neither. Everything my research has taught me about the specific issues she raises tells me that she is conveying that sort of knowledge well and commendably. What she’s offering to share with her readers is, in many ways, the exact opposite of hyper-individualism; it’s about identifying the social rules so you can hack and break them, then get together and organise on your own time to change them.

But the vision of Sandberg “blaming the victim” and leveraging her privilege remains irresistible. Much as I felt annoyed that third wave feminists had degraded and undersold the writing of Catharine MacKinnon to me, I felt irked that so many feminists had undersold Lean In. This is not a critical theory reader, nor is it a radical feminist text that gives it to the reader with both barrels; it’s a gentle introduction to a larger world. It should be understood in that light, and that work should be valued rather than dismissed.

Writing a 101 level introduction to feminism is a sure-fire way to make you unpopular with other feminists, it seems—this is understandable to a certain extent. The stakes are very high. If a woman expresses sexism in her work, it can be used to credibly licence misogyny directed at all women (“How can it be sexist? A woman said it!”). And surely, Sandberg is easily misread as arguing “in order for there to be equality, all women need to do is work harder and be more assertive like the menfolk; they’re merely holding themselves back.” This is a toxic argument for feminists with good reason, especially when it has the imprimatur of a powerful woman. Thankfully it’s not what Sandberg actually believes.

The third chapter begins, “Okay, so all a woman has to do is ignore society’s expectations, be ambitious, sit at the table, work hard, and then it’s smooth sailing all the way. What could possibly go wrong?” She then details all the things that can and do go wrong because of patriarchal social structure. Hers is not an anti-feminist argument. Rather, Sandberg says, she wishes to focus on what women can do to circumvent and short-circuit those social norms while fighting back against your socialised self-doubt, and how men can do their part by challenging their biases and assumptions while changing their behaviour. She’s working a particular “side of the street:” the symbolic-interactionist side.

Her interest is in finding ways to alter social structure at the level of small groups and offices, hoping that in aggregate, with many women and men pushing back against socialised norms all at once, structural change can begin. She hopes that by changing how we relate– with a special focus on the symbolic terms of that relation– we can change society.

This is both a debatable and testable proposition, but it’s often not the one challenged by Sandberg’s critics who hone in more on the caricature of “victim blamer.”

Sandberg, far from attacking those of us who devote ourselves to identifying and trying to change structure, applauds us—particularly feminist social scientists—and gratefully uses our work to support her own argument. Meanwhile, she seems to say, you work your side of the street while I work mine. This is not disagreeable. She neither ignores nor derides the work of structurally oriented feminists, she simply asserts that she can find a somewhat different and useful way to help. That is not something I want to be in the business of shooting down and discouraging.

I’ll be there to study whether or not the “Lean In Circles” she is creating actually work, but I want her to be encouraged by us rather than simply nay-said.

All That is Left Unsaid

There’s a lot she does not introduce her readers to. For instance, she rightly antagonises workplace culture as being built around a male ‘ideal worker’ archetype, and driven increasingly towards ruthless demands on time. She is not, however, apt to implicate capitalist culture as such—which is surely no less responsible for some of these problems. What she does do quite usefully is demonstrate the limits of “flat hierarchies”—unlike many people, she understands that power is at its most insidious when it is unnamed and informal. I’m willing to trade a critique of capitalism for a critique of reductive pseudo-anarchism.

There are two larger omissions that merit discussion, however. One is the relentless heteronormativity of the book; it would’ve been nice to see Sandberg at least acknowledge that there are lesbians and queer women for whom a lengthy discussion of male partners was less relevant. One of the things we have to ‘lean in’ against is homophobia (and in my case, transphobia as well). The same can be said for her take on race—to her enormous credit she acknowledges that life is often harder for women of colour, that our wage gap figures are even more startling, and that there is commensurability between racism and sexism in terms of their insidious workplace effects. She points out in a few places that people of colour have remarked to her that they too have experienced silencing, double standards, and double binds that are difficult to speak up about or challenge. All to the good.

What Lean In might have benefited from were the words or stories of women of colour. She tells a lot of peoples’ stories in this book to personally illustrate her points and her advice. Surely there were a few women of colour who could have also talked about the way race and gender are a ball of wax, so far as our experiences are concerned, and that one often socially impacts the other. I think that sort of knowledge can be made 101-ready, and Sandberg has great skill at distilling complex concepts. Dealing with the intersection of race and gender more explicitly could have drawn in some of her readers that much more deeply.


And yet, it is not impossible for me to see myself in this book—surely no small achievement. I had a profoundly emotional response to this book, exceeded only by volumes that were written with lightning (like the aforementioned This Bridge Called my Back, or Whipping Girl). Sandberg is much more measured and is not a visceral writer, yet she teased memories and feelings from me all the same. She reflected back at me my own self doubt, self loathing, fears, and awful memories. She may never know gender dysphoria or racism, but in my case it still added up to many of the same feelings she experienced.

Perhaps the great strength of Lean In is that Sandberg’s tenor is not “I worked hard, now I’m successful and happy, and you can be too! Stop whining!” She is open and honest about her humanity. Moments of weakness, moments of fragility, moments of tears and lice and green t-shirts and toilet-bound email checking; they are the moments when we fall short of our goals and are all too human, sometimes all too silly. It’s good that she shares hers with such admirable candour. Rather than exhorting us to deny our humanity, she asks us to embrace it. Weakness and all, doubt and all, imperfection and all. I almost hate to say something so simple and trite but… it was comforting to hear.

Yet this book does not, by and large, speak to the humanity of all women by any stretch (nor does Sandberg claim it does)– the human experience of my working class mother might well be elided, for instance. Her lifelong work—with only the briefest interruptions—has been to raise her family. But she is happy that this little book meant something profound to her daughter. To the extent the book does speak for me it is because I’ve been able to have comparable experiences in university and in a white-collar, professional working environment where everyone has a degree. This constitutes a privilege, without doubt. But a trans woman of colour is there in that space all the same, and if she had a “lean in moment,” how many others might? I say time and again I want to see more people like myself, my closest sisters, in these rarefied academic halls producing knowledge. Is Lean In part of a much larger puzzle that shows how to do that? Even with my reservations, I think so.

Oh, and as to that meeting with my professor just before I bought the book? We settled on calling me a sociologist.


  1. First, the last: I tender thanks and congratulations to you, Quinnae, for answering the call to serve as a sociologist!

    And offer encouragement for persisting with your book proposal, because you’re a wonderful writer, and should draw interest from a publisher on that basis alone.

    … and then, with respect to Sheryl: I was awestruck when I came across “A Woman’s Place: Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture?” and I commented on Facebook:

    Fascinating article about a truly sharp top manager – “With Sheryl, everything is personal. There isn’t a separation with this thing we do at work and everything else.”

    Oh, and she builds the bottom line; having helped do it for Google, she’s now doing it at Facebook.

    Which gave me hope for Facebook’s future… alas, Facebook went Facebork with its “implementation issues” in the process of striving to integrate us all into the Faceborg, which was quite clearly intended to rope us all into Facebook World, and its paradigm for single-sign-on services across the web… kind of a nifty idea, but the desperate efforts to monetize it all in the ramp-up to the IPO left us all a bit alienated?

    Sheryl bears some of the responsibility for this… on the other hand, they didn’t elect her to the board until after the (disastrous) IPO, it’s very difficult to figure out how to make money off free web services, and wth she’s not the one running the UI design/coding shop (which has been churning out poorly-thought-out and consistently malfunctioning “interface upgrades” with abandon).

    Whatever: Facebook is still much better than any competitive service, and once again I can believe Sheryl’s awesome. Thanks very much for bringing her book to my attention with this sympathetic analysis.

    Sincerely, with hugs,
    – bonzie anne

  2. Nina Trovato says:

    Excellent analysis!! I just finished reading Lean In. I was annoyed that she was so heteronormative and ignored race! I had trouble stepping aside from my own privilege and seeing if there were messages in the book that would apply to people who were not white cis het females. I am glad to see that there is some universality to leaning in at least for you.

    I really wish she were a bit more intersectional though. It would provide her more legitimacy as a feminist.

    • Thank you. ‘Tis a good article. Since writing this particular blog post I think my views on the whole “Lean In” enterprise (and I use that word quite deliberately) have hardened quite a bit.

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