• Sarah Taylor

Review: Lean Out, Dawn Foster

A challenging critique of Sheryl Sandberg, corporate feminism and "leaning into" workplaces


In 2013, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was published, a self-help and how-to guide on how women can be successful and achieve their professional goals in a male-dominated workplace, written by Sheryl Sandberg. A successful business executive herself, she had become the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook in 2008 and was the first woman appointed to Facebook’s board of directors in 2012. Lean In was hailed as a powerful feminist manifesto, selling 4.2 million copies worldwide and riding the top of the New York Times best-seller list for over a year. It even produced “Lean In circles”, where women are encouraged to meet and discuss Sandberg’s ideas on how to get ahead in work – a sort of corporate consciousness-raising group.

However, despite all of its initial fanfare and success, Lean In has gathered plenty of criticism in the past few years, with journalists, feminists, activists, academics and business executives criticising it. Dawn Foster, a British journalist and author who currently writes for Jacobin magazine, published Lean Out in 2016, a direct and powerful rebuttal to Sandberg’s ideas and her vision of “feminism”. In this concise book, Foster navigates the failures of Lean In, arguing that its message targets only a very small minority of women at the top, rather than women collectively. Foster’s arguments are embedded into a wider critique of capitalism and individualism. She maintains that “corporate feminism”, the type of feminism Sandberg espouses, does little to actively challenge or remedy most working women’s struggles, such as maternity pay, welfare safety net or unionisation.

In Lean Out, Foster defines Sandberg’s principles and corporate feminism as purely individualistic. A large part of Sandberg’s message rides on individualism and aspiration: women can succeed and achieve their best potential if they can overcome their “self-defeatism” and the so-called “ambition gap”. According to Sandberg, this ambition gap occurs because women rarely put themselves forward for promotion, ask for pay rises or fail to maintain a career whilst also raising a family (the “baby trap”). Amongst all these reasons for women’s failures in the corporate world, the blame and responsibility still fall solely on the individual woman in question. Foster argues that instead, we should be looking at why any of these issues (societal inequalities, government austerity, ingrained sexism, poor state care for pregnant working women, women working longer hours for lower pay, etc.) even occur in the first place. Foster also highlights how Sandberg ignores one of the biggest reasons for why there “aren’t more women in the higher echelons of FTSE and Fortune companies”: the 2008 global financial crisis (occurring the same year Sandberg became COO of Facebook).

In Lean Out, Foster argues that Sandberg’s ideas lack any nuanced analysis of the systemic and societal reasons for women’s inequalities in the workplace. Furthermore, feminism shouldn’t be a question of an “inward-looking … individual identity” or representing only the top 1% of women. For Foster, feminism should derive from “collective emancipation” in order to make a radical structural change – unfortunately for Sandberg, this type of working-class, collective and communal feminism which demands social change “will never sit well with capitalism”. At its heart, Lean Out is as much an anti-capitalist work as it is anti-Sandberg’s feminism.

Many of Sandberg’s arguments rely on trickle-down feminism – the idea that a few highly successful (and highly rare) examples of professional women in top corporate positions can encourage other women to also succeed. In Lean In, women can achieve their full working potential due to the “rights and privileges enjoyed by an elite group of women trickle down” – and these can be said to benefit the larger female population. Foster uses a wide range of examples from business, politics and media to highlight the failures of trickle-down feminism and to show that a few women at the top do not emancipate all women. For example, Foster uses the case of Theresa May as Home Secretary to prove this point. “Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment,” Foster writes, “there is a distinct limit to her solidarity.” Whilst she was Home Secretary, May oversaw “some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades”, including harsh immigration measures and allowing the “state-sponsored abuse of women” at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Lean Out was written several months before Theresa May became prime minister, yet her arguments would still stand. As prime minister, Theresa May oversaw an austerity regime and government funding cuts, including cuts to central government funding and domestic violence refuges – places which obviously impact on women most – alongside a widening gender pay gap. Foster also draws on the example of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first (Conservative) female prime minister, to highlight that someone is not automatically a feminist or pro-women just because of their gender. As Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian, “Far from ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, she was the aberration, the one who got through and then pulled the ladder up right after her.” Her political success is neither representative nor emancipatory for other women.

As well as being a critique of Lean In, Lean Out also shows examples of how collective feminism, leaning out of the corporate model, and communal activism can actually work. In her final chapter, “Backlash”, Foster focuses on campaign groups such as Focus E15 (formed by a group of mothers in East London when facing eviction), 3Cosas (campaigning for better rights for cleaners, predominantly women) and Sisters Uncut (a direct action group opposing cuts to government services for domestic violence victims) to show how radical change can be won. By “‘leaning out’ of the capitalist model” and “refusing to pay the game”, these direct action groups are far more effective in producing change and accomplishing their demands than a few highly privileged women at the top of the corporate ladder.

Lean Out is a very short book – around 80 pages – and so there are times when Foster’s arguments and examples seem too brief or unexplained. Furthermore, despite interrogating the realities of working-class women, Foster pays little attention to racial inequalities and the different experiences for women of colour. There is also an interesting aspect of women in the workplace which Foster doesn’t touch on. As women, we are so often told to avoid words like “sorry” and “just” in emails or workplace communications. “There’s been a push in recent years,” writes Kristin Wong in The New York Times, “especially among young women, to apologize less.” We’re told that it makes us seem less confident and driven and more insecure – it weakens women. But, as Wong argues, why should women be obliged to apologise less, rather than men be obliged to apologise more? Why should women emulate corporate and traditionally masculine behaviours, and why are they chastised when they fail to do so? In other words, why should women lean into less empathetic and polite workplace traits? I am not saying that every time a woman prefaces an email with “sorry to bother you…” or “I was just wondering if…” it is a necessary addition. However, I do think we should stop viewing these apologies as negative and instead start allowing more empathetic behaviours and discourses into the workplace. There is nothing wrong with leaning out of corporate language.

Overall, Foster’s Lean Out is a powerful critique of corporate feminism, offering a more socialist and collective vision of women’s empowerment. Like liberal or carceral feminism, corporate feminism is often portrayed as the mainstream. It is important, however, that we recognise that these “feminist” movements tend to leave out the majority of working-class women and women of colour, and can actually do more harm than good in promoting a false representation. Individualistic and ambitious “feminism” is not revolutionary or progressive, and as Foster astutely assets to, radical change and progresses are made from collective and communal activism, rather than through the success of a small minority. When viewing women in work, we must broaden our analysis to bring in a more nuanced understanding of race and class equalities. “The idea that women will work in favour of women wherever they are in business or politics simply doesn’t pan out, and remains insulting to women”, writes Foster. Rather than holding a few (highly privileged) women in complete worship and reverence, we should instead critically understand why barriers and the glass ceiling exist in the first place. By leaning out of corporate structures and by interrogating capitalist inequalities, collective feminism can help the majority rather than the 1%.