At the Out of the Binders Symposium (known on Twitter as #BinderCon) this weekend in downtown Manhattan, apologies were in the air. “Sorry!” for stepping on my foot accidentally in the bathroom line. “Sorry!” when I accidentally cut someone off while grabbing a sandwich. “Sorry!” when a presenter realized the room was too packed for folks squeezing in from the hallway. Sorry, sorry, sorry. It seemed everyone was sorry for something. But at a conference for women and gender non-conforming people, I found this less than surprising.
One of the pat pieces of advice often offered to women is to apologize less. Instead of excusing ourselves for bumping into someone, we apologize for taking up any space at all. Instead of standing behind our statements, we apologize for rambling on too long. Instead of stating our feelings, we apologize for hurting someone else’s.
This is madness, and it must be stopped. Right?
This advice draws upon the notion that by apologizing, women are behaving submissively, revealing weaknesses and lack of self-assurance. Apologizing is just one of many behaviors commonly believed to be holding women back, especially in the workplace. Such critiques of gendered behavior rely on the gender binary, and specifically frame the feminine as weak and the masculine as powerful. Nothing new there. But when evoked in feminist spaces and literature, advising women to shake off their socialized behaviors becomes deeply problematic.
It was a coincidence that I cracked open Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg on the first day of BinderCon. Lean In relies heavily on gendered assumptions about how both women and men behave in the workplace. And as much as feminist critics have eschewed the book and its limited frame, it accurately represents a lot of advice that women receive on how to get ahead professionally. In fact, it accurately represents a lot of the advice I was given at BinderCon.
According to Lean In-style feminism, when it comes to the workplace, I can either act more like a woman, or I can act more like a man. Which, we are told to consider, is the more likely choice for professional success? (Spoiler alert: not the lady one.) This kind of binary thinking, when evoked in a space like BinderCon, is dangerous. It creates an unsafe and noninclusive environment for gender non-conforming people, of course. But it also creates an environment where we are presented with only two options for how to behave in the workplace.
Most examples that Sandberg provides of men getting ahead and doing it right – and in her normatively gendered duality, men are doing it right – involve what I would consider truly awful, troubling behavior. For instance, here she shares an anecdote about attending Harvard with her younger brother, David:
When I was a senior and he was a sophomore, we took a class in European intellectual history together. My roommate, Carrie, also took the class…Carrie went to all the lectures and read all ten of the assigned books…I went to almost all of the lectures and read all of the books…David went to two lectures, read one book, and then marched himself up to our room to get tutored for the final exam…
When we walked out [of the exam], we asked one another how it went. I was upset. I had forgotten to connect the Freudian id to Schopenhauer’s conception of the will. Carrie, too, was concerned and confessed that she hadn’t adequately explained Kant’s distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. We turned to my brother. How did he feel about the test? “I got the flat one,” he announced. “The flat one?” we asked. “Yeah,” he said, “the flat A.”
He was right. He did get the flat one. Actually, we all got flat A’s on the exam. My brother was not overconfident. Carrie and I were overly insecure.”
There are so many issues with this anecdote that I honestly don’t even know where to begin. But most problematic is the implication that by shirking work and relying on his (female) classmates to manage a good grade, David is embodying the kind of “confidence” that women should be aspiring to, the kind that we should mirror. I find this adulation of oppressive and privileged behavior deeply offensive. Sandberg assumes that his entitled laziness is operating as a conscious strategy for success. And she explicitly states that his strategy is better than the “overly insecure” method of working hard and being humble.
The reality in this anecdote is that patriarchy, and surely some amount of class privilege, is likely what empowers David to act like an ass and still get ahead. By affirming his behavior, Sandberg is suggesting that such behaviors are admirable and should be mimicked by women looking to move forward in their careers. Are those the teachings to move us towards a progressive future?
Unfortunately, I saw this mentality echoed far too often at BinderCon. Nearly every panel or workshop I attended contained some advice for women writers. And every single advice-giver suggested some version of the Lean In philosophy. Ask for more money. Act more confident. Sacrifice family and relationships for your job. Do better and more. Bang down doors.
And none of that advice is wrong, per se. To each their own. But there are several problems with this dominant and limiting narrative when extrapolated and applied to all working women.*
First of all, of course, there is little systems-level framing in this approach. It’s all too easy to forget that gender-based oppression is a product of structural conditions when such “advice” places the burden of change into the hands of the oppressed.
It’s also grounded in a strong allegiance to gender normativity, something that I would rather see progressive and feminist women challenging and re-imagining rather than replicating for the purpose of forwarding their career. The women most able to achieve success with the Lean In model are the women most able to perform traditionally masculine success strategies. And this gender normativity is both limiting and problematic.
In binary thinking, each side is shaped as much in reaction to the other as by its own characteristics.
More specifically, the vision of womanhood imagined by Sandberg and her ilk is positioned as a counterbalance to masculinity as much as it is an independent conception of femininity. The problem with imagining womanhood this way is that inevitably, success strategies for women navigating patriarchy begin to mirror the success strategies of the patriarchy. Because men hold power in our society, it is a natural assumption that acting more like a man will bring you success. But of course, even the least bit of feminist examination should render this strategy useless to a non-patriarchal vision of the future.
This duality is even more complicated in that it perpetuates gender stereotyping on both ends of the spectrum. Imagining a future where women achieve success by adopting traditionally masculine behaviors, relies upon a stereotyped notion of what comprises masculinity in the first place. I find myself questioning again and again the validity of whether and how men evoke these aggressive, masculine success strategies in the workplace.
There’s only so many times that someone can command me to ask for a higher salary when I start to wonder, is my competition really behaving this way? Is every man – or even most men – really asking for raises, demanding to be the lead on ambitious projects, stepping out of line to bring their opinions to the top, and so on? I can certainly imagine circumstances where this might happen, and fields – like journalism, technology, or other old-boys-clubs – where this behavior may be more pervasive. But when stated as a sweeping trusim – “women lean back, while men push their way to the top” – it becomes hard to believe.
I certainly know many men who would feel uncomfortable perpetuating such behavior, either because their personalities are naturally more passive, or (more rarely) because of a political belief that leveraging your masculinity isn’t a great strategy for getting ahead. For those men who are for whatever reasons less “ambitious,” it seems we are creating a dangerously gendered environment for them, as well, when we characterize all men as pushy, arrogant, over-achievers. There are all sorts of personal and structural reasons why men may feel more or less empowered to evoke traditional masculinity in the interest of a raise. To avoid that reality is as limited as assuming women are too meek to step forward of their own accord. In both situations, a system is being individualized to the point of forgetting that much of our behaviors are shaped by forces outside of our control.
In Sandberg’s book, she speaks fondly of men jumping for opportunities that they are unqualified for, and getting those jobs because of sheer enthusiasm and potential (at least she frames it as such – I’d argue that those men are benefitting from socialization that allow us to see men as natural leaders and women as natural followers). It honestly boggles my mind that she characterizes such behavior as admirable. For instance, hiring on potential is common for men in industries like banking and finance. Don’t you think that some number of the men involved in collapsing our nation’s economy were supremely under-qualified, and “got ahead” based on their smile and broad shoulders? Do we really need more leaders who are mediocre at their jobs but great at bullshitting?
My main resistance to the Lean In approach is that I can’t get on board with a philosophy that devalues femininity. Lean In encourages women to restrict behaviors that they have either been socialized to use or have developed as coping strategies for navigating patriarchy. As a confident, self-assured woman, I don’t struggle with raising my hand, sharing my opinion, or pushing hard in the workplace. But I do apologize a lot, worry about asking for more money than I’m worth, and think hard about my qualifications before taking on new projects. Do those characteristics make me a poor employee? Have they held me back in my career?
I suppose I can’t really know the answers to those questions. But I’ll say this – I didn’t hate going to a conference where everyone was apologizing all the time. In fact, it was one of many “feminine” behaviors that made for a self-aware, warm, inclusive environment in which to learn and grow. So sue me if I don’t think that being modest, nice, and welcoming is what’s holding women back in the workplace. Honestly, I’d blame that on the patriarchy.
*Sandberg has received extensive – and rightful – critique that her book primarily speaks to middle- and upper-class women working white collar jobs. Similarly, as a conference for writers and journalists, BinderCon was also targeted to women working white collar jobs. This piece also uses that limited and problematic definition of “working women,” as much due to its source material as to my own experiences navigating a middle-class background and white collar jobs.
Sheryl Sandberg photos courtesy of the World Economic Forum.