Literature | Lean Out

Criticism of any woman isn’t anti-feminist purely because she is a woman: women occupy all sections of society now. The Queen being the Queen isn’t an emancipatory feminist fact. Margaret Thatcher harmed more women by becoming Prime Minister, drastically harming thousands of women’s lives and communities because her class interests mattered far more to her than any modicum of gender solidarity. Sheryl Sandberg has worked for companies that entrenching and worsening equality, but is able to cast herself as a feminist prophet because she has the money, power, and platform to do so, all while refusing to engage with the structural and external forces perpetuating women’s inequality, instead women to look inward.

Lean Out by Dawn Foster 

Back in London for a while and plenty of time to stop by Koya for a bowl of steaming kake udon, natto, umeboshi and assorted mushrooms with daikon and shiso. Oh, how I miss Japan! 

During my university days, I read Sandberg’s Lean In, and was immediately taken with it. I studied hard whilst working part-time and, to increase my chances of securing the job I wanted, I also had an unpaid internship. ‘It’s the only way in’, they said. Once I was ‘in’, I soon realised that it wasn’t the place I wanted to be. I wanted out yet felt stuck by unrealistic goals I had placed upon myself. Almost at breaking point, a friend casually remarked ‘just because you have a postgraduate degree in Human Rights Law doesn’t mean you have to be the Secretary-General of the United Nations’. One sentence altered the course of my life and freed me of stress and pressure I’d placed upon myself.

In this response to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Foster analyses the damaging implications associated with ‘Leaning In’, exploring how such behaviour increases inequality. Looking beyond the 1% – to those on zero-hours contracts, illegal workers, single mothers – and focusing on the role of those power, Foster challenges state sanctioned anti-women policies. Cuts to local council budgets which support and run charities and refuges for survivors of sexual violence and cuts to financial benefits to those in need may force women into illegal and repressive work. For those accessing these services, how would Leaning In benefit them? As I read, I realised the Leaning In doesn’t empower women. It places blame at our feet. We cannot afford childcare because we didn’t lean in and ask for more money. We weren’t focused enough. Utter nonsense. More troublingly, it exonerates those in power from their misogynistic practices and laws, a process women are far too complicit in.

When Theresa May became our Prime Minister someone commented that I must feel very happy to have a woman in the top job. I remarked that based on her performance as Home Secretary during which time she expressed her xenophobia with abandon, no, I was not remotely happy. I don’t belong to that club, and I never really understood why. As Foster breaks down ’trickledown feminism’, I began to understand why. Role models and representation are important, but if actions and policies do not align with ensuring freedom and equality for all, a woman at the top is irrelevant. 

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