Last March, Sheryl Sandberg launched Lean In, a non-profit offshoot of her best-selling book. At the time of the organization's launch, it was too early to tell exactly who would benefit from the politically ambitious Facebook executive's top-down empowerment agenda. But now, one year later—after a high-profile publicity tour, a sworn commitment to diversifying stock photos, and the world's only meh Beyoncé video—and Sandberg still doesn't have a good answer.
Her latest initiative, a public service campaign to ban the word "bossy," also seems unlikely to make a meaningful change. It's the linguistic equivalent of Lean In's war against negative stereotypes of women, using stock photography as its only weapon. In both cases, Lean In has properly identified areas where a headline-grabbing, mainstream organization could make a difference—and then prescribed the most superficial corporate salve possible.
Lean In announced the #banbossy campaign earlier this week in partnership with Girls Scouts of America—coinciding perfectly with the one-year anniversary of Sandberg's organization. Banning "bossy," they argue, will help girls close "the confidence gap" and encourage them toward leadership roles. The project began with TV-ready PSA featuring Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice, her majesty Queen Bey, Jennifer Garner, Jane Lynch, Diane Von Furstenberg, and the U.S. Secretary of Education.
Sandberg had the power to marshall all those celebrities and policy influencers (and the pulpit that comes with it) and she squandered that capital fixating on one word. A word that already comes with its own radically feminist music video from Kelis, exemplary career advice from Nicki Minaj, and a role model like Tina Fey.
The confidence gap is real and it is insidious. Inculcating gender norms starts early and contributes to lack of women in leadership. I don't think anyone ever called me bossy, but the message was clear: tone yourself down, don't be too assertive, don't be cocky, people will like you more if your personality is palatable, speaking of, you should really focus on being liked. In the same vein, I don't recall any aspirational images of women in the workplace, much less women who looked like me.
But progress has never come through PSA, especially one with such a meager target. If no one in the world ever said the word bossy again, it would be hard to tell the difference. As Anne Friedman put it in The Cut:
"[that's] why it's so frustrating to watch Lean In try to expand girls' options by restricting the way we talk about them. It's counterintuitive, and it makes feminists look like thought police rather than the expansive forward-thinkers we really are."
Let's say this unmemorable commercial, which might as well be followed with "The More You Know" jingle, did somehow manage to narrow the confidence gap. Even so, these young women are going to matriculate into a staggering wage gap, particularly within the tech industry where gatekeepers like Sandberg advise ambitious female workers to take a seat in the back of a startup rocketship, no matter what the pay.
Shanley Kane put it bluntly on Model View Culture:
"The ultimate message of Lean In ideology is transparent in the name itself: Stay in the machine. Work for the machine. Appease the machine."
I imagine other women, like me, reserved judgement over Lean In's stock photo project (a partnership with Getty launched in February), partly because you don't want to hold back a step in the right direction. You won't see Sandberg at Occupy Menlo Park, but her mission has always been practical, focused, and vital: getting more women in leadership roles. In both cases, Sandberg located pain points along that route.
But here's how the New York Times described Lean In's stock photography solution to oppressing stereotypes:
The new library of photos shows professional women as surgeons, painters, bakers, soldiers and hunters. There are girls riding skateboards, women lifting weights and fathers changing babies' diapers. Women in offices wear contemporary clothes and hairstyles and hold tablets or smartphones — a far cry from the typical stock photos of women in 1980s power suits with a briefcase.
With so many resources and so much access at Sandberg's disposal, it feels like a far cry from consequential.
One could argue that that Sandberg has made more of difference than other tech executives (maybe), that these are the kind of watered-down campaigns that happens when you partner with corporations (not necessarily), and that we haven't seen the full scope of what Lean In will do (true).
However, Sandberg has not shied away from utopian rhetoric about "changing the future" and promoting "equality," like this page about empowerment in college through "lean in" circles. Sandberg's foundation claims that there are 14,000 circles globally, but doesn't say how many people continue to come back to these "Alcoholics Anonymous fused with Girl Scouts" groups. One year later, I don't even know anyone who has been invited to join, on or off campus. Maybe Silicon Valley should ban the phrase "world change."
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