This past Tuesday, I made my way to the inaugural meeting of Yale’s “Lean In” circles — small, weekly chat groups focused on supporting women’s leadership. The circles use the principles of “Lean In,” the best-selling book by Facebook‘s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, to discuss and encourage women’s achievement in the professional world. The introduction of these circles into the Yale extracurricular realm marks another effort to bring feminism to the attention of the student population, joining the ranks of the Women’s Center, feminist magazine Broad Recognition and even the Facebook group Yale Feminists.
It’s not that the circle’s founders are doing anything wrong. The meeting itself was a low-key, intimate conversation prompted by a set of Lean In question cards — open-ended topics that weren’t explicitly about feminism, but dealt with feminist and professional issues like power structures and jealousy. We discussed psychological studies on the objectification of women in media and about students’ relationships with their parents. The members openly approached questions of daily life with an emphasis on gender identity, sexuality and equality.
Yet while this past discussion touched broadly on challenges in student life, the campaign itself conveys an accusatory message. Sandberg’s controversial Lean In philosophy suggests that women are at fault for the dearth of female high-level professional leaders in the United States, guilty of “leaning out” under pressure to fulfill typically feminine and maternal roles. Sandberg’s trickle-down ideology says that once women rev up their ambition and climb the professional ladder, the atmosphere for women in the elite ranks of corporate life can finally improve.
Sandberg’s perspective, though, ignores a reality that modern feminism is trying to address: the intersection of race, class, gender identity and sexuality with the issue of women’s equality. As the feminist scholar Bell Hooks writes in one critique of the campaign, “It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality.” The fact that women are less present at the top of the corporate hierarchy speaks not to a lack of ambition, but to a society that continues to discriminate against women in the workplace, particularly women of color and of lower socioeconomic class. Women “leaning in” to the business world alone won’t remedy the racism and classism that pervade corporate America. What’s more, the Lean In campaign absolves those who are actually guilty of creating systemic inequality by telling women they are responsible for eliminating discrimination against themselves.
There isn’t a place for Sandberg’s narrow brand of feminism in the modern women’s rights movement, and there’s no place for it at Yale. Though the diversity that Yale men and women bring to the circles will clearly define the perspectives and paths of discussion, the circles intend to follow the curriculum that Sandberg’s campaign sets up and thus perpetuate her movement. The face of the Yale feminist, or the modern feminist anywhere, isn’t the privileged woman Sandberg imagines, whose success in the professional world depends only on her inertia to lean in. We are a community of men, women and genderqueer students whose personal experience climbing the professional ladder will depend on varying sets of social norms, biases and other challenges.
Still, the main structure of these Lean In circles, sans Sheryl Sandberg’s presumptuous message, is promising. The concept of the circle — ideally, eight to ten people and a moderator or two — provides for comfortable, personal discourse on issues we don’t frequently bring up, and which are implicated somehow in gender identity and equality. The mild variety of discussion, equally engaging of men and women, could be an important gateway for students to think about gender issues and might help dispel the negative reputation that has followed feminism even into this century. These circles’ conversations view issues in student life through the lens of gender identity and equality, and can make feminism a more natural element of campus conversation. In this way, the discussion moderators actually have a critical position in determining the future of women’s rights advocacy at Yale.
I hope that this future can surpass the limited vision of feminism that Sandberg’s campaign promotes.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at email@example.com.