Feb 242013

Not only does Facebook have a woman problem, but one has to wonder if the only woman on their board does too.  Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In”, exhorts women to quit holding themselves back in the business world which she says is part of the reason that women are so poorly represented at the upper echelons of the corporate world.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” Sandberg writes in the book, called “Lean In.”

“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

And how does one “lean in”?

When her book is published on March 11, accompanied by a carefully orchestrated media campaign, she hopes to create her own version of the consciousness-raising groups of yore: “Lean In Circles,” as she calls them, in which women can share experiences and follow a Sandberg-crafted curriculum for career success. (First assignment: a video on how to command more authority at work by changing how they speak and even sit.)

“I always thought I would run a social movement,” Ms. Sandberg, 43, said in an interview for “Makers,” a new documentary on feminist history.

Allow me to unpackage that for you, Ms. Sandberg.  First of all, do you have a clue what a consciousness raising circle is?  Here’s a hint–it doesn’t have a curricula where someone tells you what you are supposed to do.  Secondly,  you may want to read up on social movements–one person doesn’t get to run them.

And I’m guessing that leaning in, if that even makes sense (we’ll get there in a minute), is a lot easier for someone who owns a 9,000 square foot house and has no problem paying the nanny than someone who is one step from bankruptcy because of medical bills and house payments and is holding down two jobs just to keep food on the table.  Sorry, but most of us have a little trouble relating to where you are coming from.

But all of that is beside the point.  What irks me is the notion that if women behave differently, the corporate world will welcome them in and hold the ladder while they climb to the top.  In what way is this really different than telling a woman that what she wore precipitated a rape?  I’m also thinking of military generals telling women that if they take on combat roles they will finally be paid equally and maybe be less likely to be sexually assaulted.  The problem with that, and the problem with what Sandberg is saying is that the real issue is that there is something terribly wrong with the power-over dominator system on which the corporate and military power structures depend.  And even if a higher percentage of women rise to the top, most women, and for that matter most men, will still be at the bottom.

So no, Ms. Sandberg, leaning in is neither useful or appropriate.

Which leads me to my second point.  Nowhere is this more clear than Facebook and its attitude towards women.  There have been numerous instances of images of breasts that are illustrating posts about breast cancer or breast feeding being removed (and sometimes the pages where they appear being suspended with ominous notes sent to the poster telling them they are violating Facebook’s terms of service) while pages that objectify women and glorify rape and violence against women are allowed to remain up despite protests.

The site’s community standards state: “Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech.” What is not clear, in spite of several high-profile campaigns and a Change.org petition that garnered more than 200,000 signatures, is how it makes that distinction. Over the past few years, women say they have been banned from the site and seen their pages removed for posting images of cupcakes iced like labia, pictures of breastfeeding mothers and photographs of women post-mastectomy.

Yet images currently appearing on the site include a joke about raping a disabled child, a joke about sex with an underage girl and image after image after image of women beaten, bloodied and black-eyed in graphic domestic violence “jokes”. There are countless groups with names such as “Sum sluts need their throats slit” and “Its Not ‘rape’ If They’re Dead And If They’re Alive Its Surprise Sex”. One of the worst images I came across in a brief search shows a woman’s flesh, with the words “Daddy f*cked me and I loved it” carved into it in freshly bleeding wounds.

It is very difficult to protest when Facebook deletes a post or suspends a page.  I found that out after they removed an image that was explicit but most definitely not pornographic from a page that I administer.  They sent me a letter of warning but did not give me any way to respond or explain their error.    That has an impact–whenever I consider whether to post something similar (and when you write a lot about violence against women and women’s health topics, that is a frequent issue), I factor in the risk that they could take down my page or ban me from Facebook although I’ve done nothing wrong.  On several occasions, I’ve elected to take a pass on posting something because I don’t want to lose my page.

So am I supposed to lean in and buy Ms. Sandberg’s book?  I don’t think so.  It’s a catchy, feels like I’m doing something to help myself even though the system is totally stacked against me sort of a phrase that we hear all too often in situations of oppression. As KPFK’s Feminist Magazine puts it so eloquently on their Facebook page,

Dear Sheryl Sandberg: telling women they’re the problem and that they need to buy your book and watch your videos to ‘have it all ‘ isn’t feminist, nor a “social movement” (oh & PS – have you seen all the misogynistic and hateful pages that Facebook won’t take down – what about that?)

And that, Ms. Sandberg is why,  rather than making nice and trying to play the game, I’ll continue to stand my ground and speak my peace.


A few other pieces about this that you should consider reading:

 February 24, 2013  Posted by on February 24, 2013 4 Responses »