The book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has been getting a lot of attention recently. In a thoughtful piece in Al Jazeera today, Catherine Rottenberg argues that the “new” brand of feminism offered by such books is devoid of concerns for social justice.
“A new trend is on the rise. Suddenly high-powered women are publically espousing feminism. In her recently published book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg advocates for a new kind of feminism, maintaining that women need to initiate an “internalised revolution”.
“Sandberg’s feminist manifesto comes on the heels of Ann-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed Atlantic opinion piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, which rapidly became the most widely read essay in the magazine’s history. In her piece, Slaughter explains why professional women are still finding it difficult to balance career demands with their wish for an active home life: social norms and the inflexibility of US workplace culture continue to privilege career advancement over family.
“The buzz that has surrounded these two “how-to-reinvigorate-feminism” programmes suggests that Sandberg and Slaughter have struck a deep cultural chord. Indeed, the two women are quickly becoming the most visible representatives of US feminism in the early 21st century.
“Part of the media hype, however, involves their public disagreements. But the attempt to pit these two women against one another is actually ironic, since their fundamental assumptions about what constitutes liberation and progress for women are virtually indistinguishable.
“Sandberg urges women to reaffirm their commitment to work, while insisting that this will provide women more choice about how to carve out a felicitous work-family balance. Slaughter urges women to reaffirm their commitment to family, while asserting that this will provide women more choice about how to carve out a felicitous work-family balance.
“Thus, despite the surface disagreement, both women ultimately agree on the basics, while the difference is merely a matter of emphasis. Sandberg focuses on changing women’s attitudes about work and self. Slaughter focuses on legitimating women’s “natural” commitment towards families, while urging social institutions to make room for these attitudes.
“In both cases, there is a deeply held conviction that once high potential women undertake the task of revaluing their ambition (Sandberg) or the normative expectation that work comes first (Slaughter), then all women will be empowered to make better choices.
“Transforming women’s orientation and attitude, which in academic parlance is now called affect, becomes the necessary condition for ensuring women’s liberation and happiness as well as changing society. Ultimately, both feminists offer affective solutions that they claim will allow women to stay in the rat race. These two aspects – positive affect as antidote and the importance of balance – mark an extremely disturbing cultural shift.”