Book: Lean Out by Dawn Foster (2016)

Reviewer: Jeriann

Age/Genre: Non-Fiction

Signs You’ll Like This Book: You hate being told to “lean in;” you like reading The Guardian; you’re interested in feminist political theory.

Content Notes: Discussion of sexism, racism, and other systemic inequalities

Lean Out was given to me as a birthday gift from my friend, Laura. When I first unwrapped it, I laughed and shouted a triumphant, “YES!” Laura was afraid for a minute that I already had it, but I was just excited because the cover is a giant middle finger and I absolutely love to hate on Lean In.

If you’re unfamiliar, Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, is an advice book published in 2013. Sandberg is currently the Chief Operating Officer of social media giant Facebook, and she uses her success as evidence that all women have to do to succeed in this world is to lean in. Now, for full disclosure: I have not actually read Lean In. When it was released, it was promoted as super inspirational and “motivating to women” and I simply wasn’t inspired by the premise of being told to work harder. It assumes that working harder will always result in rewards, and that those in charge of promotions and the like are free of bias and ulterior motive. In short, the idea that “leaning in” works relies on a fairness that doesn’t exist in the world. Not only that, but Sandberg uses the idea of “leaning in” to imply that she got where she is in life through hard work alone, rather than examining how her circumstances might have given her advantages unavailable to other people. To be fair to Sandberg, in the years since Lean In was published, she has admitted that until she became a single mother, “I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”

In Lean Out, Dawn Foster, writer for The Guardian, breaks down many of the issues with Sandberg’s premise. Foster’s primary focus is how the “lean in” strategy completely ignores the fact that not all women are born with the same opportunities. Lean In ignores power imbalances and other practical realities that often stand in the way of success. Basically, Sandberg implies that if you’re not successful, you’re not working hard enough, and your struggles are in no way tied to systemic injustices or oppressions. Sandberg’s argument eliminates the need for feminism or any other organized movements for systemic improvement, like equity legislation or business regulations, and puts all the power (and responsibility) on the individual. 

Foster also challenges the idea that having more women in positions of power in government and corporate boards automatically benefits all women. She shares statistics that show that companies with women at the top don’t necessarily have more gender equity throughout the ranks. The idea that women in leadership automatically benefit other women is a “trickle-down feminism” that works about as well as trickle-down economics. In discussing business policies, Sandberg often declines to discuss whether Facebook is looking at making the changes she advocates for. When asked about equity in Facebook’s C-suite, Sandberg redirects the conversation to the number of women at Facebook as a whole, and blames the tech industry in general for fewer number of female hires.

Lean Out is a great critical examination of a book that saw a lot of media acclaim. At 87 pages, Lean Out is a quick, accessible introduction to thoughtfully examining how people and businesses can utilize social movements for their own success, and how that behavior can impact those movements. Corporate feminism superficially encourages women with “girl power” messages, but doesn’t do anything to promote policies and social changes that would result in actual equality for people suffering from oppression. Hot take articles that decry “feminism going too far” or ask “can you be a feminist and…” posit feminism as a lifestyle rather than a political movement. This increases misperceptions of feminism and muddies the waters of legitimate debate. Foster shares examples of politicians who publicly embraced feminism, but enacted policies that drastically harmed women. She also points out media criticism directed at politicians that abstain from corporate feminist displays while focusing on legislation that actually works to promote equity. 

At the end of her book, Foster analyzes a couple of examples of women in their communities fighting for better living conditions and human rights. She shows how these movements do not rely on the idea of “leaning in” to the broken system, but rather promote speaking out against inhumane practices and implementing direct action (occupying empty homes to show that there’s no reason for people to be forced onto the streets, throwing a ruckus when immigration breaks laws to take people away, etc). I really appreciated these clear examples of women fighting for positive change.

Foster is based in the U.K., and Sandberg, while a somewhat global figure, is based in the U.S. This led to a few instances where I wasn’t sure the statistics were being used in the clearest way. Foster does contextualize all her statistics with the country or region that the source studies were pertinent to, but most of her examples of social issues are U.K.-based. Once or twice, there was a reference to a U.S. statistic, and then a story about U.K. politics. Part of me wanted Foster to just pick a place so we could get focused analysis in one area. But another part of me thought that the varied statistics helped demonstrate that this is a worldwide issue, and statistics and examples from other countries did help round the arguments out. Foster provides a references section in the back, but most of her sources are online articles, which she only includes the urls for, not titles or authors. This means that if those urls change for any reason in the future, there’s a chance that interested readers won’t be able to find the source.

Foster cites a lot of other journalists, and one of these instances resulted in me checking out another author’s work. Foster cites Nancy Fraser to show how poor women are more vulnerable to exploitation. I recognized Fraser’s name from an essay in Wolf-Whistle Politics: Namara Smith discussed Fraser’s proposal of a “universal caregiver” model where the typical work week and pay scale is designed with the idea that every employee is (or will at some point in their life be) a caregiver. This model would battle a lot of workplace inequality that falls on women due to expectations of motherhood and other caregiving roles. Foster’s mention of Fraser solidified my desire to check out Fraser’s work, which I will be reviewing in the future. 

One of the best things about this book is that, because it is short and broken up into digestible sections, it’s easy to revisit specific portions and research specific points. As I was writing this review, I reread whole sections and went on several side-quests to learn more about events and people that Foster mentions. Overall, I think if you’re interested in feminist politics at all – whether your opinions align with Foster’s or not – Lean Out offers great insight and resources to learn more. 

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