FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 05/08/2013

Lean In? Lean Out? What’s a Girl to Do?

May 6, 2013    |    Volume 6, Issue 9

Faith + Ideas = an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By Lauren Swayne Barthold

In her new book, Lean In, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg implores women to be savvy about strategic sacrifices and efforts while pursuing key positions of leadership. What’s interesting about her message is that it acknowledges the depressing reality that women are often set back both by their own beliefs about themselves (e.g., “Women systematically underestimate their own abilities”) and by society’s more general attitude about women (e.g., “What all the data show is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women”).

The statistics, though, add an ambivalence to her message: while Sandberg urges women to “lean in”—i.e., to work harder and smarter—she also points to what is too often overlooked in debates over women in the work place: the personal and social prejudices that influence choices, motivation, and opportunities. Unfortunately, she doesn’t offer suggestions for how to rid our society of the “implicit biases” we all hold in spite of our best intentions and that prove detrimental to women and other minorities.

Instead, the Lean In message is a slightly more nuanced version of “just work harder.” And such a message, while perhaps apt for some men, is naïve when addressed to women. Why? It is blind to deeper cultural and structural issues.

Even so, the book seems to be resonating within certain subcultures of the U.S., particularly within Christian higher education. At the College where I teach, for instance, a recent push to encourage more women leaders has not gone unnoticed. But before we jump into another movement, perhaps we should reflect on what it really means for today’s women to lead.

First, we need to be astute about potentially damaging messages that contribute to implicit bias. Certain beliefs (held by some Christians) promote values that encourage women not “to sit at the table” but to “lean back.” If “letting the man lead” means he is the primary decision maker, the one who initiates a relationship and asks a woman on a date or to marry him (all of which is subtext within much of the evangelical world), then it’s not hard to understand why these women rarely assert themselves for positions of leadership. If a woman is sitting around hoping he’ll propose or make the decision, she’ll likely take the same attitude into the boardroom and wait for the man to ask if she has an idea or wants a promotion.

Similarly, when women are not deemed ‘capable enough’ to be mutual partners in a marriage but are told to submit to the leadership of their husbands, it conditions a woman to lean back —or away—from the work place.

But women are psychologically diminished in other ways, too. For instance, one popular Christian website advises women who want to improve their marriage to “invest in their underwear.”

While this is laughable on the one hand, it utterly betrays a belief that women are naturally sexual temptations for men and that “Christian” women should use their ability to seduce for the “good” of their man. Obviously, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to be assertive when their religious communities conspire with secular culture to objectify them.

For those of us who value the biblical goal of shalom, we must also think hard about how much to promote women into top positions without also analyzing whether certain institutions promote justice. Do we really want to fight to include women in companies or organizations that may be key sources of power yet which also directly or indirectly exploit and exclude certain ethnicities or socio-economic classes? I can imagine some women wonder why they should rise to the top of a corporation at all if it’s at the expense of employees, where CEOs make 343 times more than workers.

So if having women in high level leadership positions won’t also challenge the institutional structures—and the oppression they create for so many men and women—pure tokenism seems not only empty but evil. A commitment to justice must also address cultural causes of self-doubt and insecurity among women, as well as cultural attitudes that implicitly prevent them from achieving their best. At the same time, if some women are reticent to pursue leadership, it might be an indication that justice is not served when women merely function as tokens in an institution that endorses unjust practices.

The way forward, then, is to avoid getting ensnared in the tired battle between leaning in, where women work outside the home, and leaning out, where women are full time mothers. Taking sides in such a debate detracts from walking the narrow path of shalom. My advice? Lean in for justice.

Lauren Swayne Barthold is associate professor of philosophy and gender studies at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her family live in Beverly, MA.


Lauren Swayne Barthold