We’ve been hearing a lot about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead lately. Sandberg apparently heralds a new brand of feminism: a call to women to pull themselves up and overcome “barriers that exist within ourselves, sometimes as the result of our socialization….” She discusses how women hold themselves back, sometimes because they want families, sometimes because they feel limited by a perceived lack of power. So Sandberg seeks consciousness-raising in women, reminding them they have power and encouraging them to claim it, almost despite socialization. Sandberg describes how she does it – how she raises kids and runs a company, and it involves being
realistic about our choices. When we measure ourselves against people at work who don’t have other responsibilities, we feel we fall short. And when we measure ourselves against women who are with their children all day, we feel the same way. We need to recognize that we can’t do it all, that we face trade-offs every single minute of every day.
I hold Sandberg’s book and her experiences as one of Facebook’s chief operating officers side by side with another book from another woman who worked at Facebook, Kate Losse. Losse wrote a memoir last year (coincidentally also the first year a woman served on Facebook’s board) called The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network, and her book she recounts some of the “socialization” that women experience. Losse recounts what Facebook did for women, how the internet pre-2005 was a place where
Most college students [in the 1990s] had spent their high school years on AOL, and knew that having a public, guileless and unprotected Internet presence was little more than an invitation to be spammed by sexual solicitations from faraway men…. So the idea of creating a profile on an open, national social network felt like an unnecessary risk, another way of making yourself available to millions of distant strangers for the benefit of only a few friends.
The advent of Facebook meant “Now, we can finally use the Internet!…No more dealing with creepy guys assuming that just because I was on the Internet, I was available to be virtually stalked and harassed with pictures of penises, followed by a barrage of insults if I didn’t respond,” as one woman in Losse’s book gleefully recounts.
Ultimately, Losse’s book is a cautionary tale, though. Facebook, fueled by a fraternity-boy like atmosphere from its beginnings, was primarily a platform that encourages people constantly to worry about what “face” they’re showcasing to the world, and whether other people like that “face”. Like the college women I sometimes observe at college parties, who dress up (in stark contrast to the men who often display a “so what” attitude) and who seem anxiously worried about whether they are “perfect” enough to find a partner, casual sex, a free beer, and so on – Facebook encourages a Panopticon-like constant watching of the self, a constant looking to see how the surrounding world responds.
Isn’t it interesting that our constant watching of ourselves online is what has made Facebook (and other social media) engineers so wealthy? Melissa Gira Grant writes:
More than blurring boundaries between public life and private life, Facebook re-institutionalized ‘second shift’ work – only instead of performing child care and housework, we are caught up in the ‘not work’ of self-surveillance and personal brand-building that are the hallmarks of social media. It was the mirror to Losse’s cheap labor as personable customer service: the users’ uncompensated outpouring of personal information.
Alongside this effect we should pause to note how gender-stratified the effects of this social media are. One study published in 2012 suggests that women tended to look to Facebook at double the rate for men for emotional assurance, women felt addicted to Facebook at double the rate of men, and women lost sleep over Facebook use at double the rate of men, too (Susan H. Thompson, Eric Lougheed, “Frazzled by Facebook? An Exploratory Study of Gender Differences in Social Network Communication Among Undergraduate Men and Women” College Student Journal 46:1: 88-98 (March 2012), 96.)
The upshot of all this for me is that while I admire Sandberg’s abilities and persistence, and while I think she is right about the need for consciousness raising – I think her book also looks somewhat old-fashioned in the social-media world she’s helped to create. The power she advocates for women suggests, in effect, that they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, brush off the lingering effects of socialization that belittles them, and get to work leaning in to the powerful jobs that exist. This is a book that fuels our individualistic culture because it focuses on individuals and their responses to the world surrounding.
Yet I see cracks in Sandberg’s vision: she mentions going home at 5:30 to be with her kids, but then she mentions also the necessity of getting online again late at night because the internet office is always there and always on. Why is this the kind of powerful life we want to advocate? As Sherry Turkle writes in her book Alone Together, “Always on, and (now) always with us, we tend the Net and the Net teaches us to need it.” Sandberg’s view belies the fact that online socialization is no little thing to brush off. Indeed, Kate Losse quit her job at Facebook and moved somewhere where there was only dial up modem access, for a time, so that she could begin to get enough space to see how her online social life was forming and dictating to her a particular view of what was important, what was timely, what was interesting.
Most people who reside in a technological world don’t have that kind of choice. We can’t cash out valuable Facebook retirement options in order to become hermits. Quite the contrary: many of us increasingly live in a world where our jobs depend on our ability to use the internet, and so does our ability to participate in our society at large. My daughter’s kindergarten registration was online this year! Our “choices” are limited by the very fact that the internet is no longer a choice in many, many ways.
When I hold that together with the effects I’m seeing of the internet on us and our relationships with each other, it causes me to wonder: why should the images of power and of working women be about building up a world that might, in point of fact, not be entirely good for us (men and women both)? More to the point: why should we be building up a world a la Sandberg that has a unique power over us, precisely because we generally don’t see the ways in which life online is forming us (a la Losse)? Why should we be building up a world that fosters individualistic desire for the “correct” presentation of ourselves online, over against the kinds of relationships we yearn to establish offline where we can get old and sick and otherwise change, but that doesn’t necessarily make us “unlikeable” or “unfriendable”?
I think Sandberg is right that there is a need for consciousness raising, and a need for women (and men) both to take on power they maybe didn’t know they had. But I think the power and consciousness raising in this case are more informed by being willing to seem insignificant in a world where significance is measured by the photos and 140-word bytes you write about yourself. It’s about being willing to say that there are times and places when the workplace will not encroach on my life, because my life is about more than work.
Indeed – these are aspects of the counter-culture Christianity promotes. Our scriptural stories and our discussions of what it means to be human suggest we are not made to work, but to enjoy life and (at the least) a day of rest. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grows into a tree big enough for birds to nest, that too, offers a counter-cultural view that being small and supposedly power-less is an illusion. And that the call we have from Christ to “lean on” each other – to seek forgiveness, to build up the body, to outdo each other in kindness, patience and love (Romans 12) is rather better than “leaning in”.