The Failures of Lean-In Feminism

Former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, in which the Facebook COO offers predominantly female readers gutsy, directive advice about how to approach their careers, is about to reach its tenth birthday. Looking back over the last decade, it’s unclear whether it made a difference for women in America. 

Sandberg’s book, which grew out of her Ted talk entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” and launched hundreds of women’s groups, is best understood as a forceful response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famous 2012 lament in The Atlantic that women in the twenty-first century still could not “have it all.” 

In her book, Sandberg accepts this fact and doubles down: Of course, no one can have it all; still, women should run fully half of the world’s businesses and men fully half of its homes, because a world in which more women lead is presumptively a better world for all women. 

Yet despite Lean In’s phenomenal popularity and some of its useful tips on matters like negotiating salaries, just eight percent of Fortune 500 companies today are female-led. We are not much closer to Sandberg’s vision than we were a decade ago. 

Moreover, other indicators of women’s well-being continue to decrease rather than improve, and there has been widespread rebellion among both men and women in recent years against exactly the kind of grinding, nonstop, corporate culture that Sandberg lionizes throughout Lean In. Indeed, one hidden blessing of the recent pandemic was a recognition of how unnecessary this culture can be to workplace productivity. 

The failure of Lean In feminism comes as no surprise to those on the right. Conservatives generally believe that, given the choice, most women would spend more time with their families and less on their careers. Conservatives would say that Lean In feminism failed in part because of its false premises: that the modal woman is indistinguishable from the modal man when it comes to preferences about family, and that a just society would therefore produce just as many career-driven women as career-driven men. 

Meanwhile, for those on the left, Lean In feminism’s failure is harder to swallow. To progressives and mainstream feminists, persistently lower rates of female leadership are proof that women remain systemically excluded from opportunities for advancement in the workplace, saddled with domestic expectations, and professionally undervalued compared to their male counterparts. From this perspective, Lean In feminism failed because it was predicated on individual women changing their own behaviors, rather than on those in power changing the professional and domestic ecosystems that motivate those behaviors. 

The conservative and progressive perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Both critiques of Lean In feminism point to truths that we must embrace in a spirit of non-ideological rationality. 

Conservatives are correct that there are, on average, pronounced differences between men and women — especially when it comes to orientation toward family and career. Two-thirds of Americans agree that women tend to want to take more time off than men do after the arrival of a new child. Moreover, if they had the financial freedom to do so, most mothers of at least one child under age 18 would choose to work part-time if at all.  

A feminism that stands for maximizing rather than scoring women’s choices would be strong enough to embrace average differences between the sexes while simultaneously dismantling the barriers that still do plague women attempting to ascend to the highest reaches of many professions.  

This remains true even as more equality between men and women in the home is our present reality. Today’s men spend more time with their sons than they have at any time since industrialization moved work off of the farm and into a non-domestic workplace. They spend more time with their daughters than ever before. Moreover, there are many men that embrace the primary caregiver role. Often, when men take a step back professionally upon becoming fathers, it is because their children’s mother makes more money than they do and the financial well-being of the family is contingent upon her continued “leaning in.” Sometimes, it is because this arrangement suits the preferences of both parents for other reasons, including the prioritization of the career with the more stable trajectory, even if both continue to work essentially full-time. 

Regardless, healthy involvement of fathers is all to the good, and a sign of societal maturation that permits greater individuation for both women and men when it comes to balancing parenthood and career. 

That said, no amount of female freedom—to access education, to avoid social stigma for choices that put career ahead of family, and so on—will produce total parity between the sexes when it comes to the primary caregiving role and which parent modifies career choices to meet familial needs.

Just look at the Nordic countries, which boast the greatest equality of opportunity between the sexes and the most distance from traditional expectations for male and female roles. Despite these progressive values, the professional differences between Nordic women and men have become more, not less, pronounced. 

That’s because women, where they are financially and socially freest to make unencumbered choices about career and family, overwhelmingly prioritize family. 

My own experience is an example of this norm. My husband and I met as undergraduates. We are both professionally ambitious. He went to law school; I earned a doctorate. 

We now have three children, and my husband is as hands-on a father as you’ll find. He changes diapers, gives baths, coaches t-ball, participates in every scouting and church event, does bedtime—all of it. And yet, despite working full-time myself until our youngest was 18 months old, I have always been the primary caregiver and the CEO of the household—because that is what I want. 

I have been the one to maximize flexibility (rather than ambition, fulfillment, or income) in my career trajectory. This is because my husband makes more money, yes. But that, too, was a deliberate choice that we made from the start: for him to pursue the partnership track at a large law firm, doing work he loves, and for me to do just some fraction of what I wanted professionally so that I could prioritize availability to be home with babies, supervise and transport school age kids, orchestrate after school activities, run the household, and so on. 

Like the Nordic women, I have been fortunate enough to have options; and, like most of them, I choose to be a primary caregiver. The majority of women, given those kinds of privileges and options, always will. 

Many professions today are structured in ways that are unfriendly to family goals. That reality plausibly does affect women’s preferences and choices (more on this below), but nevertheless, it is simply a reality that more mothers want to run households and more fathers want to run companies, and this is antithetical to “lean in” feminism’s insistence that all average differences between males and females are socially constructed rather than innate. 

By contrast, a feminism that stands for maximizing rather than scoring women’s choices would be strong enough to embrace average differences between the sexes while simultaneously dismantling the barriers that still do plague women attempting to ascend to the highest reaches of many professions.  

Progressives and mainstream feminists are correct that the upper echelons of myriad professions remain systemically inhospitable to women. Even in the wake of the Me Too movement, for example, sexualization and sexual harassment often go unpoliced. There remains a gulf between human resources policies and workplace culture that can ultimately be overcome only by the greater integration of women into the inner social circle of male-dominated workplaces. 

The pandemic gave a lot of us the chance to think about how we really want to spend our time. 
Fewer women than Sandberg guessed want to spend it climbing a fundamentally rigid and all-consuming corporate ladder. 

Feminists rightly noted, for example, that former Vice President Mike Pence would be hard-pressed to have any close working relationships with women of the kind that would facilitate their professional rise if he is never permitted to be alone with a woman. Though few American men share Pence’s reluctance to have unsupervised time with female colleagues, many participate in the kind of coercive, after-hours workplace sociality that’s making a post-pandemic comeback. This does not always lend itself to unambiguously platonic mixed-sex spaces that are nonetheless conducive to human bonding. This is especially the case in professions like business and law, as well as policing and some areas of medicine, where the upper echelons remain overwhelmingly male. 

Moreover, even in professions where women are as likely to be in positions of supreme power as men—such as academia, where I worked for over a decade—motherhood is often incompatible with continued advancement. In part, as noted above, this is because women choose to pursue more flexible and less ambitious career paths in order to be more available for their children. In some professions, that’s inevitable. Some careers simply are not and can not become flexible (think surgeons, Wall Street traders, or trial lawyers). But in fields like academia that are flexible by nature, this doesn’t have to be the case. If we had greater respect for many women’s desires to tend their families while maintaining their careers, more women might find it possible to advance professionally while raising children. As it stands, we currently impose cultural penalties for motherhood where they are unnecessary.  

For example, mothers that want to breastfeed are required by law to be offered spaces in which to pump breast milk while at work. For those that do not have their own offices (one negative externality of the open concept office design trend), this space may be neither convenient nor clean (think: trekking across campus to a restroom with a sitting area). Moreover, mothers that want to pick older children up from school, or spend time with them in the late afternoon, often aren’t allowed the kind of flexibility in work hours or career path that could facilitate this arrangement with no loss of productivity. 

Unfortunately, there is a perception of vast cultural difference between women like Sandberg, who want women and men to be culturally and professionally indistinguishable, and women like me, who have no interest in influencing women’s free choices in pursuit of any particular outcome. This perception is codified when women of the former type dominate in a given profession, as they do in academia. This leads to a “lean in” culture that is often more rigid—not just professionally, but also culturally—than is required to do the work itself. 

This is part of why, today, “lean in” feminism is getting pushback, not just from conservatives, but also from progressives that question more broadly the hustle culture of work that, thanks to digital technology, now never ends. “Quiet quitting” is all the rage among the young. Sandberg’s personal anecdotes highlight an undauntable work ethic that may be entirely relatable to 35-year-old me, but it’s far less relatable to someone a decade my junior. 

The pandemic proved that many jobs held by college-educated women of the Sandberg demographic really could be done from home—if not entirely, then often at least in part. Moreover, it gave a lot of us the chance to think about how we really want to spend our time. 

Fewer women than Sandberg guessed want to spend it climbing a fundamentally rigid and all-consuming corporate ladder. 

And that’s okay; we don’t need 50% of CEOs to be women. 

We do, however, need a feminism that works for us all, by comprehending the kind of genuine choice that truly encourages women to lean in—whether to an explosive career or to some other version of a self-determined, examined life. Ideological monism about eschewing or embracing traditional women’s roles should comprise no part of the freedom-oriented feminism that could prove functional and transformative in the twenty-first century.