“Lean-In” to the Master’s House?: A look at patriarchy, intersectionality, and essentialism in Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto



When I first heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I was inherently intrigued. It is rare for feminist literature to take hold of the public imaginary, and I was interested to see a book on the New York Times bestseller list that firmly placed issues involving gender inequality in the workforce on the map. However, my interest and excitement soon waned as the critiques from feminists of color, LGBT feminists, and other feminist communities came rolling in. It became clear to me that Sheryl Sandberg was just another white feminist who did not fully understand her privilege, positionality, and place within the feminist movement. Lean In was instantly critiqued for its lack of an intersectional focus, its heteronormativity, and its disregard to institutional and structural barriers to women in the workforce. I dismissed, the book entirely in favor of feminists like Audre Lorde, Roxane Gay, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many other phenomenal feminist writers, theorists, and rhetors. It wasn’t until my Feminist Theory class in the spring of 2015 that I was once again confronted with the “Lean In” movement and its place within feminism. For class, a clip of Sheryl Sandberg on Good Morning America was given as supplemental material to facilitate class discussion. Immediately I linked Sheryl Sandberg’s interview and ideas about “leaning in” to Trina Grillo’s piece Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House. In this article Grillo quotes Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Hackett, Haslanger 30). In my mind, this quote perfectly summed up many of the contentions other feminists had with Sandberg’s framework of “leaning in”. It was this undeniable connection between Grillo, Lorde, and Sandberg that sparked my interest in writing a critically analytical research paper on Sandberg’s “Lean In” framework and its place within the feminist movement. I opine that although Sandberg’s “Lean In” framework has a place in feminist discourse, ultimately the framework is too entrenched in patriarchal standards of equality and how to achieve it, to bring about genuine equality through institutional change. Thus, this essay articulates the pros and cons of Sandberg’s framework by contextualizing it within feminist theories of anti-essentialism, intersectionality, and “dismantling the master’s house” (Lorde 112).

Before I delve into my research and critical analysis, I would like to position myself firmly within my research. I am a middle-class, white, able-bodied, cis-gender, heterosexual woman with a university education. My studies focus on women’s and gender studies and with that comes a highly theoretical understanding of oppression and privilege. As a researcher, I must constantly negotiate my places of privilege, which are many, and my own marginalization. I consistently approach my work with an intersectional lens in order to contextualize my thoughts within a radical, anti-essentialist feminist framework that destabilizes domination and hegemony. It is with these cornerstones of my feminist identity in mind that I approach this essay.

Firstly, in order to fully understand Sandberg’s approach to the “Lean In” movement it is vital to understand her positionality. Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook where she became a billionaire. Prior to this she was the vice president of Global Online Sale and Operations for Google. She has also served as the chief of staff at the United States Treasury Department during the Clinton administration. Sandberg has a degree in economics from Harvard and also attended Harvard Business School. Currently, Sandberg lives in Northern California with her husband and two children, a boy and a girl (“Sheryl Sandberg Biography”). Clearly, Sandberg has a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-class woman in higher education, politics, and the corporate world. These positions of privilege become abundantly clear throughout the reading of Lean In, and Sandberg has been able to achieve great success due to her relentless work ethic and her refusal to be silenced in concert with the privileges and opportunities afforded to her based on her identity.

Sandberg’s approach to the “Lean In” movement is based on her articulation of a handful of internal forces that prevent women from advancing within the corporate world. These forces are enumerated in Sandberg’s table of contents, but the three biggest points in her Lean In manifesto and TED talk are: 1) sit at the table, 2) don’t leave before you leave, and 3) make your partner a real partner (Sandberg)(“Why we have too few woman leaders”). In the chapter “Sit at the Table” Sandberg gives a short anecdote about a group of women in senior positions that attended a meeting with Sandberg and a group of other executives. These women remained on the literal sidelines of the conversation even after Sandberg invited them to sit at the table with the rest of the group (Sandberg 27-8). Sandberg uses this as a jumping off point to discuss how women internalize sexist institutions to the point where they do not feel as though they have earned a “spot at the table”, even if their title, education, etc. reflects otherwise. This is one way, Sandberg claims, that women’s internal barriers influence their behavior, consequently influencing their visibility and their ability to move up the corporate ladder (Sandberg 28). Thus, Sandberg’s solution is to implore women already in positions in which they have a relative amount of influence to have no shame in claiming their “spot at the table”. Sandberg asserts that once women do this, they will already have made a step in validating their worth internally, which will ultimately translate to the elimination of external barriers for other women (Sandberg 8). The chapter “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” focuses on the following scenario outlined by Sandberg: “An ambitious and successful woman heads down a challenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind. At some point, this thought moves to the front of her mind, typically once she finds a partner. The woman considers how hard she is working and reasons that to make room for a child she will have to scale back… Often without even realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities… several years often pass between the thought and conception, let alone birth… by the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career than she would have been had she not leaned back,” (Sandberg 93-4). As you can see, Sandberg is advocating for these women considering parenthood to “lean in” in those months, years, or decades leading up to the birth of their child, instead of “leaning back”, which makes women complicit in the truncation of their career trajectory, thus not landing them in the corner office. Sandberg’s final main point is articulated in the chapter “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” in which Sandberg implores women to find a partner who is willing to split responsibilities 50/50, both in their careers and in the home, because the amount of success she will have in her career is contingent on finding such a balance (Sandberg 108). Although Sandberg has several other points that further address how to “lean in”, it is these three main points that Sandberg seems to be the most passionate about, and the three main points she continuously brings up in interviews and presentations, which is why I chose to highlight them. Although Sandberg briefly references external institutional and structural influences such as sexism, and even more briefly racism, homophobia, etc., the connection between how these internal and external forces are linked is never fully articulated.

Obviously the advice that Sandberg gives to her reader is not inherently “bad” advice, but it is also obvious that her understanding of what it means for women to “lean in” is more about how to convince elite women who already occupy positions of privilege and power to do so, and less about how to actually get into a position of privilege and power. This is perhaps one of the most fundamental missteps that Sandberg takes, because it inherently lacks an intersectional lens. Sandberg briefly references the places of privilege that she occupies, usually stating that she is “lucky” to have had opportunities afforded to her, or that she is “lucky” that she is able to afford child care, or that she is “lucky” to be taken seriously in her field. But I contend that is not luck, it is privilege, and to claim it as “luck” is to deny that very privilege and to ignore the ways in which society has set her up for success versus a woman of color, or a lesbian, or a disabled woman, or a trans* individual. Grillo states in her speech Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House that “the most dangerous thing for [a woman] would be to go through life as if she were always subordinated, because she then might not notice situations in which she was ignoring someone else’s voice,” (Hackett, Haslanger 38). When Sandberg chooses to focus solely on her femaleness as a site of subordination, she ignores the privileges associated with the dominant intersections of her identity. Thus, not only does Sandberg not fully articulate the ways in which her intersectional identity influences her position within the “Lean In” movement, but she also does not recognize the way in which other women’s intersectional identities could render “leaning in” irrelevant or impossible to implement in their own lives.

In addition to lacking an intersectional understanding of identities, Sandberg makes many assumptions about women’s lives and the supposed common experiences women have simply as women. This exemplifies Grillo’s very definition of essentialism: the notion that there is a single, universal experience intrinsically linked to a certain group based on one facet of their identity (Hackett, Haslanger 32). For example, Sandberg’s most grandiose assumption is that either, a) all women already occupy a position in which they can “lean in”, or b) that all women need to do to get to a position of privilege and power is to “lean in”. According to Grillo, a cornerstone of essentialism is that it is possible to strip down one’s experiences to the nature of one specific part of their identity, as if it is possible to extricate gender from race, race from class, etc. (Hackett, Haslanger 32). Sandberg’s assumptions about women’s positions of power and privilege essentialize women’s need for the “Lean In” movement. It denies the complications of race, class, etc. in determining a woman’s social positionality and the institutional and structural barriers to their success, or merely even entrance into the workforce. In addition, one of Sandberg’s biggest grievances is that having children prevents women from “leaning in” and scoring that corner office. This is essentializing because, although Sandberg notes that not all women want to get married and have children, she writes as though this is an innate quality of all women once they hit a certain age. This is not only fundamentally false, but also an essentialist ideal of women and their desire for motherhood. Additionally, the reality is that there are plenty of women without children who are “leaning in” who still do not ever reach the coveted status of CEO.In fact, there are more women CEO’s of Fortune 1000 companies who are married and have kids than those who are unmarried, without children, or both (Fairchild). Thus, it becomes unavoidable to note that the fact women are choosing to have families is not the reason why women aren’t more prevalent in senior corporate positions. It is sexism. It is racism. It is all the –isms.

At the end of the day, critiquing Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement as lacking intersectionality and essentializing women’s experiences as women is a relatively moot point. It is perhaps most important to note that the entire framework that Sandberg uses in contingent on using “the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 112). Sandberg continually states that only by climbing the ladder of success into the corner office will women be able to dismantle patriarchy and instigate equality in the workforce. By default, Sandberg’s assumption is that gender parity in the corporate world in and of itself will create equality. It is possible that this phenomenon would foster an ability to facilitate equality, however it will not “create” equality for women. Furthermore, what if it is the rat race to the corner office that is the problem in the first place? The entire structure of corporate America has been created by and for the patriarchy, and I would contend that claiming that women will have “equality” when we have gender parity in the workforce, government, etc. is a tool of the patriarchy to distract us from the scope of the entire patriarchal system. Moreover, it is women like Sandberg, who are so entrenched in patriarchy that they cannot see they are inherently complicit in the patriarchal structuring of society, government, and corporate America. Without the use of such feminist tools like intersectionality and anti-essentialism, feminists, like Sandberg, will continue to attempt to dismantle the patriarchy within the very confines of the patriarchy they wish to dismantle. By essentializing all women’s experiences, all women of color’s experiences, etc. into that of “woman” we lose sight of the ways in which sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. intersect in order to complicate the web of oppression that the patriarchy weaves. In doing this we are ignoring the very ways in which oppression prevents women from pursuing these roles in the first place, and we are only evaluating their success, worth, or importance from the standpoint of how the patriarchy would view success/worth/importance. Arguably, only a complete restructuring of society will ever truly eradicate systemic and institutional oppression.

So I ask, what good can come of “leaning in” to the master’s house? I ask this question because it is nearly impossible to reconcile my radical feminist side (that wants to completely restructure patriarchy) with the very pertinent reality of trying to succeed, or merely survive, in a patriarchal society that has the deck stacked against everyone in some way. It seems like there is no winning, does it not? Thus, I end my research with a bit of both. Yes, we do need women to “lean in” because we currently need more women in the canon of government and corporate America. However, we need more feminist women to “lean in”, because without them, women will have a hard time finding support dismantling patriarchy from the outside of the confines of the master’s house. It is with this in mind that we also need to recognize the power of women who radically redefine what success looks like, women who do not merely chose to “transcend” patriarchy by “leaning in”, but who actively dismantle the master’s house from the outside and replace its bricks with feminism, intersectionality, and anti-essentialism. I envision this as a sort of double-agent game. Radical feminists who are willing and able to play by the rules of patriarchy must infiltrate its inner sanctum and become CEO’s, senators, and board members. They must “lean in” all the way without forgetting the cornerstones of feminism: intersectionality and anti-essentialism. At this same time we need radical feminists on the outside, who reject the patriarchy and its standards, to rise up in huge numbers in support of equity, anti-capitalism, anti-white supremacy, anti-imperialism, etc. As more feminists infiltrate the patriarchy, and more feminists begin to rise up, we will be at the tipping point of institutional power and radical protest. Since there would already be feminist-minded individuals on the inside, they would recognize the power and importance behind this growing movement, and with this inside support, we could work together because of our differences, not in spite of them, which could lend itself to an entire restricting of society, free from oppression. If there is one thing I have learned in my feminist studies, it is that there is not one singular way to be an activist. There is not one singular way to be a feminist. And there is not one singular way to smash the patriarchy. However, it is the unification of these intersectional, anti-essentialist means of feminist activism that will, brick by brick, dismantle the master’s house from both inside and out.


Works Cited

Fairchild, Caroline. “Women CEOs in the Fortune 1000: By The numbers.” Fortune Women CEOs in the Fortune 1000 By Thenumbers Comments. Fortune, 08 July 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Hackett, Elizabeth, and Sally Anne Haslanger. Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. Print.

Sandberg, Sheryl, and Nell Scovell. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.

Sandberg, Sheryl. “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Sheryl Sandberg:. TEDWomen 2010, Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

“Sheryl Sandberg Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

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Filed under Feminism, Former Essays, Women of Color

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