LARSON: Against narrow feminism

Nothing in Particular

Refreshingly, feminism has been in the news at Yale lately — and not in response to any outbreak of misogyny or instance of sexual assault, but rather as a topic deserving discussion beyond responses to the latest injustice. Yale’s sixth annual Women in Leadership Conference brought a range of speakers and female leaders to campus on Saturday; the last issue of the News’ magazine contained an insightful exploration of our associations with the word “feminist”; and weekly “Lean In” circles have come to Yale.

Harry Larson_headshot_(David Yu)These circles, and the book for which they are named, have been met with a fair measure of on-campus criticisms. I was a little taken aback at the notion that there might be something controversial about weekly gatherings where participants (men as well as women!) discuss how women can achieve professional success.

Still, noted feminist author and thinker bell hooks recently wrote an op-ed taking issue with Sandberg’s philosophy, and many students have picked up her criticism. These criticisms tend to come in two ultimately problematic forms.

First, critics argue that Sandberg’s book and the larger Lean In movement offer lessons only for a homogenous group of women — educated, affluent, white, straight and pre-professional. This complaint seems to me to be missing the point. Sandberg never claims to speak comprehensively for all women. The people who stand to gain the most from a corporate executive’s career advice are not the most diverse group of women. They may not be exclusively white or straight, but most of them are well-educated and either affluent or poised to be so.

Such women are undoubtedly better off than millions of other women (and men) in America and around the world. But it is also undoubtedly the case that even elite women face significant obstacles to professional success. A cursory glance at the gender composition of Congress, academia or America’s business executives confirms this. When Sandberg’s critics say that advancing elite women is “bad feminism,” they unfairly turn feminism into a zero-sum game, whereby success for some women can only come at others’ expense.

This zero-sum game appears false on its face; in fact, it seems to me that the success of elite women will help increase opportunities for all women. Elite women should not gain support at the expense of economically disadvantaged women, but I don’t understand why feminist action on multiple fronts can’t be possible.

A second — and, in my mind, more reasonable — complaint about Sandberg’s book is that its logic is one that blames the victim. Even in its title, the book seems to imply that female struggles in the corporate world are a result of their lack of perseverance, rather than a symptom of systemic inequality and discrimination.

This sort of criticism cannot be rejected on its face. The tendency to blame the victim rather than address underlying injustices is one we see all too often — victims of sexual assault, for example, are frequently made to feel somehow responsible for the violence that has been committed against them.

And yet, I question this logic when it is applied to Sandberg’s advice on professional success. I can’t help but compare it to arguments that hold we should give up on improving the quality of teaching in failing schools because the root problem lies not with the teachers, but rather with poverty and its deleterious effect on academic achievement. Even as we advocate for systemic progress, we can still push individuals to their highest potentials within an unjust system.

Sexism persists in the corporate world today; we can and should have a direct conversation about how to change that. But waiting for that change to materialize without talking about female professional success is simply a recipe for perpetuating the status quo.

Leaning in won’t end sexism. It probably won’t help the vast majority of women. But if Sandberg’s experience and wisdom can help some women — many of them, perhaps, current Yale students — then that’s a cause for celebration, not critique.

Harry Larson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His  columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at  harry.larson@yale.edu.

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