Lean In vs Lean Out, and thoughts on diversity

I recently read “Lean Out” by Dawn Foster, a response to “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. It gave me a lot to think about.

I think these books together highlight two contrasting approaches to resolving inequality: one is to try to remove differences and distinctions between people; the other is to preserve differences but try to change the power balance.

Based on having seen her TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women seems largely to come into the first category. It teaches women how to succeed in the male-dominated world of big business, essentially by being more like men in having greater self-confidence and willingness to promote themselves. She does suggest that workplaces need to become more woman-friendly (or motherhood-friendly), too, but seems to put most of the onus on women to start getting into top positions in greater numbers so that this kind of change can be created. This approach has been heavily criticised because it’s mostly concerned with the success of elite women, and ignores the awkward fact that such success depends on an army of nannies, housekeepers and unpaid interns, to whom none of the benefits “trickle down” in practice.

“Lean Out” seems to be more concerned with political change to obtain protection, better conditions, and financial security for the majority of women nearer the bottom of the pyramid. There seemed to be nothing in the book about challenging cultural gender roles – it’s more about seeking protection for women in the roles they currently find themselves in (not just in terms of work, but motherhood, particularly single motherhood, unpaid caregiving, and so on) and getting society to value the work they do.

What about my own feminism? Well, I have some issues with the “we are all the same really” approach. My generation has been taught to be colourblind, to believe that we are all the same underneath the skin; I have more recently become aware of how this actually erases people, denies them true representation, whenever one group is particularly dominant. (See for example Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent talk ‘The danger of a single story‘.) The same is true with gender – males and females are socialised differently throughout life and to deny or minimise those differences when trying to get more women into male-dominated arenas essentially just means women have to assimilate into the male ‘culture’. This seems to me what Sandberg is trying to do and I don’t really agree with it.

Foster on the other hand doesn’t really question the fact that there are differences, and instead sees the problem as lying in women’s traditional roles being under-valued, rather than women needing to be better-equipped to “succeed”. A lot of which I agree with, but I guess I see gender role segregation as a bad thing, too; not just for the resulting inequality, but for exaggerating the differences between the sexes.

I want all labour to be valued. I also want roles to change, but in the process, for differences to be respected and valued; I want true diversity in that sense. I think it would challenge unhealthy norms and groupthink, everyone would learn more, and problem-solving could be more dynamic. Is that all just pie in the sky really though?

I noted in my previous post that my feminism had developed into, partially, an idealistic mandate for women to mitigate their collective vulnerability by insisting on equality in every area of life. In other words, there was a good bit of “Lean In” in there, in the sense of putting the onus on individual women. I had created new expectations for myself and others, around embracing diversity and challenging traditional role segregation, that need to be critically examined.

Diversity is really hard! One of the examples of diversity in action that I most admire is Unitarianism – I found Unitarian church much more radically inclusive than the global Sunday Assembly community has turned out to be – and yet, of course, I stopped going regularly because I didn’t feel there were “enough people like me there” (i.e. secular types). I treasure diversity and yet it seems I cannot bear to be in a minority, even when I know I am welcome. How much more careful, more neutral, would the content of the services have to be so that I would feel I belonged? If this is an analogue for, say, state-schooled students in elite universities, women in politics, or men taking a chunk of parental leave in a country where baby-changing facilities are hardly ever provided in men’s bathrooms, what does this say for the prospects of my “diversity” ideal?

Of course, none of these approaches is easy. But I think what “Lean Out” has given me is a greater appreciation for the need to focus on addressing the power imbalance directly – rather than purely indirectly through desegregation of gender roles.

This entry was posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, politics, social justice, Sunday Assembly, Unitarian and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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