If Books Could Kill

Lean In

March 14, 2024
If Books Could Kill
Lean In
Show Notes Transcript

Peter: Michael? 

Michael: Peter.

Peter: What do you know about Lean In

Michael: All I know is that it's the perfect book for women who want to start a family and also help Mark Zuckerberg do some genocides. 

[If Books Could Kill Theme]

Peter: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. 

Michael: We're experts on all three. [Peter laughs] People come to this podcast for triple expertise.

Peter: You know, I read so many reviews of this book, but I think that there's one thing that we can offer that none of those reviews could, and that's a male perspective. 

Michael: They said two men couldn't have a podcast. [Peter laughs] We prove them wrong every day. 

Peter: The first two guys to do it, folks. What do you know about Sheryl Sandberg? 

Michael: All I know is what was in the zinger that she's a Facebook lady, a number two for Mark Zuckerberg and I was going to go somewhere with that sentence, but we've reached the limits of my knowledge. I don't think I'd ever heard of her before this book came out. 

Peter: I think that's true of most people. She's a Harvard MBA. She went to work for a young Google and then a young Facebook. She was an early innovator in driving ads, which is, of course, how both of those companies became ludicrously profitable. So, she got very rich, hundreds of millions of dollars at the time of this publication. Now something just south of 2 billion.

Michael: Oh, wow. 

Peter: When she wrote this book, she had been Facebook's COO for about five years. So, that's sort of where she is professionally. She was a big deal. When she's writing this, I think just to contextualize us culturally, we're in the midst of, or maybe even near the end of this era of corporate feminism. There's this cottage industry of books and other media targeted towards helping women advance in the workplace, especially in white collar jobs. Sandberg rises to some mainstream acclaim when she gives a TED Talk in 2010 titled Why we have too few women leaders, which lays out the core thesis that she ultimately turns into this book, which she publishes in 2013.

Michael: Is it because not enough of them can afford constant childcare, [Peter laughs] can't get decent paying jobs? 

Peter: So, usually we talk about books that haven't received too much scrutiny. 

Michael: Oh yeah.

Peter: But I think the opposite is true of Lean In. The cultural and political tide has really turned against this book in the past few years. When it came out, it was broadly popular. Sandberg was getting some good press, especially in the business world. She's doing that talk circuit. But there was also pretty widespread criticism, especially from feminists, theorists, and thinkers, and even the favorable reviews tended to hedge their praise a bit. And then you get a few things happening. You get the me-too era, where there's been a lot of writing and reflection both on the book and the shortcomings of this type of feminism generally. And then you also get The Cambridge Analytica scandal. You get the Myanmar genocide that Facebook might have helped facilitate. All of that washes whatever residual sheen there was off of Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In

Michael: She lost her title as airport royalty, [Peter laughs] (derogatory).

Peter: To give you a sense of its initial reception when it comes out, The Guardian called it infantilizing, The Baffler and Descent published withering reviews. But you also had some generally favorable reviews from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and maybe more importantly from a PR perspective. She's partnering with a ton of big companies and female leaders to build this Lean In brand, which generates a ton of press and attention. So, even though there's this backdrop of negative reviews from very serious thinkers, the public perception is just like big hit book, right?

Michael: Right. I remember the backlash to this book happening roughly eight minutes after it came out. I don't remember the lash. I don't remember people taking this up enthusiastically, but maybe that's just indicative of my Internet usage. 

Peter: You're too woke. You're the person who reads The Baffler [Michael laughs] and that's their first impression of Lean In

Michael: It's funny how she managed to capture both turning of the tide against this white corporate feminism and also turning of the tide against the tech sector. 

Peter: Right, right. 

Michael: The only thing that could have made it worse is if she was somehow involved in making Season 8 of Game of Thrones. [Peter laughs] Just like the culture was not into this anymore. 

Peter: So, when The Cambridge Analytica scandal hits in 2018, there was this final wave of bad press that really seemed to just be the nail in the coffin here. The Washington Post publishes a piece titled The End of Leaning In. The Nation publishes one called Lean In has been discredited for good. Michelle Obama gave a speech in 2018 where she said that leaning in doesn't always work. 

Michael: Whoa. 

Peter: Yeah. When you lose Michelle Obama.

Michael: I'm trying to think of all of the other mainstream institutions that could have turned against her, like, the Gilmore Girls did a special episode [Peter laughs] about how much she sucks. Brene Brown issues an emergency press release, “Fuck this lady.”

Peter: So, given all of that, I was almost a little bit wary to do this episode because a ton of criticism has already been leveled at the book. But then I saw a Substack post by Danielle Kurtzleben, who's a political reporter for NPR, titled “One Cheer for Lean In”, where she basically makes the argument that “Every criticism that's been leveled at Lean In is basically right,” but that she still found value in the book as a feminist. And I thought that was sort of refreshing, because to a lot of feminists and people on the left, the book is almost like a punchline at this point. So, I went into it with an open mind and after reading it in the micro, there is a lot of good stuff in the book. It's relatively research heavy. It's easy to read. There's plenty of reasonable advice. There's also a lot of stuff that trickled into our public consciousness in a way that lacks nuance, but in the book is like relatively nuanced. That said, I think that after absorbing it and thinking about it for a little bit, I do ultimately believe that this is a work of great evil. 

Michael: [laughs] Upon reflection, our podcast that dunks on books [Peter laughs] has decided to dunk on this book. 

Peter: The broad premise of the book is very simple. She lays out a bunch of the challenges that women face in the workplace, and then she talks about how women can address them. Right off the bat, she says that it's a book targeting the internal obstacles that women face, which really leads to the primary critique, which is that this is a set of individualized solutions to structural problems.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: She will set out a bunch of very real phenomena that appear to hold women back in the workplace. And for the most part, she actually explains those problems really well, even though whenever the examples are personal to her, it's not really relatable. She'll be like, “I was getting mentorship from Larry Summers.” [Michael laughs] Okay, well, what am I supposed to do with this? 

One of the ongoing motifs in the book is that the first 90% of a chapter will be like a relatively well researched, thorough, but accessible explanation of a problem facing women in the workplace. And then the last 10% is just the worst prescription that you could imagine. And it feels like it came from someone who didn't really process the first 90% of the chapter. 

Michael: Right. Spend a month at Costa Rica just unwinding, [Peter Laughs] relaxing. Yeah, that would probably help lots of people. 

Peter: So, the first substantive chapter of the book is about the ambition gap between men and women. She cites a McKinsey survey of thousands of employees, mostly at large companies, that found that 36% of men wanted to be in the C-suite, whereas only 18% of women did. There's also research showing that men are generally more interested in management than women. And she traces a line of research that found similar sentiments in young adults and children with middle school boys aspiring to higher powered careers than the girls, for example. 

And from there, she cites a pretty massive body of research about how this might stem from early childhood. She says, “From the moment we are born, boys and girls are treated differently. Parents tend to talk to girl babies more than boy babies. Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate the crawling ability of their daughters. Reflecting the belief that girls need to be helped more than boys. Mothers often spend more time comforting and hugging infant girls and more time watching infant boys play by themselves.”

Michael: That sounds true. That sounds bad. 

Peter: Absolutely. And again, the first 90% of every chapter is pretty good. I'm going to send you the next portion of this. 

Michael: I feel like I need to do my Elizabeth Holmes voice for these. My C-suite lady voice. 

Peter: Not all C-suite ladies sound like Elizabeth Holmes. [laughs] Sorry. [crosstalk]

Michael: The thing is, I'm allowed to be 8% more problematic about gender than you because I'm a homosexual and I'm closer to women that’s [crosstalk]

Peter: That's true. Even though I don't really agree, [Michael laughs] I think that I choose to live with one. I've committed my life to one.

Michael: Technically.

Peter: You are going to keep them at arm's length for the rest of your existence. 

Michael: As a straight man, you are actually more qualified to speak about the problems of women than a gay man, fair, fair. 

Peter: All right. I just sent you a little paragraph. 

Michael: Okay. She says, “Other cultural messages are more blatant. Jim Bere once sold onesies proclaiming smart like daddy for boys and pretty like mommy for girls. The same year, JCPenney marketed a T-shirt to teenage girls that bragged, “I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” These things did not happen in 1951. They happened in 2011.” Yeah. Those are horrific shirts, man. What the fuck? 

Peter: I mean, Jesus Christ, right? 

Michael: That’s so, fucked up.

Peter: I feel like we moved on from this quickly enough that it's maybe no longer part of the cultural memory of young people, but shit like that, as bad as it sounds, it sounds very familiar to me. 

Michael: Before Lean In came out and changed everything, these eras were very regressive. 

Peter: So, she builds on this by talking about stereotyping, by talking about the lack of parental leave in the United States, all of these different factors coming together. And overall, it's like a very comprehensive, fairly compelling case that the difference in ambition between men and women is in some large part socially constructed. But then she gets to the end of the chapter where she translates this into advice for women. I'm going to send you what she says. 

Michael: Here are the onesies you should buy for your child. She says, “Fear is the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked, fear of making the wrong choice, fear of drawing negative attention, fear of overreaching, fear of being judged, fear of failure, and the holy trinity of fear, the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter. Without fear, women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment and freely choose one or the other or both. At Facebook, we work hard to create a culture where people are encouraged to take risks. We have posters all around the office that reinforce this attitude. In bright red letters, one declares, fortune favors the bold. Another insists, proceed and be bold. My favorite reads, what would you do if you weren't afraid? We also have kitten posters in the office that say, hang in there.” 

Peter: [Laughs] So she's in the prescriptive phase of this chapter, and all of a sudden it sounds like a script for a Super Bowl commercial for Facebook. At Facebook, we work hard to create a culture. Okay. So, she lays out this sprawling problem with all of these complex cultural and political causes, and you're nodding along. And then her solution portion is like, don't be afraid. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: It feels so deeply inadequate after you read the first 90% of the chapter, even just as, like, a matter of individualized advice. There is no research about strategies for overcoming all of these social and cultural biases or anything. There isn't really research about being less scared. There's nothing practical. It's just like, get out there. 

Michael: What if I'm afraid of starting a union, Sheryl? What should I do then? How bold should I be? It's so weird when companies do this, like, fortune favors the bold. But I'm at a job where I can get fired for any reason. It's America. We have at will employment, so you can be bold under very prescribed conditions in American workplaces. 

Peter: You can imagine advice that's just a little more grounded in reality, a little more practical. Here are ways that you can be unafraid. But in a vacuum, it's just not really meaningful. Act without fear. Okay. What am I going to yell at my boss more? That means to me.

Michael: There's a weird chicken and egg thing too, where one of the reasons why women are less likely to be bold in the workplace is mostly because when women are bold, they get called shrill. So, it's not just like, well, women need to be bold. It's more like, people need to interpret women's boldness as the same way they interpret men's boldness as, like, leadership or whatever. 

Peter: Oh, we will get there, Michael. [Michael laughs] We will get there so soon. Before we do, I want to talk about the imposter syndrome chapter. This is the second chapter. It's called “Sit at the table.” Imagine you have a good sense, and our listeners have a good sense of what imposter syndrome is. 

Michael: Because I'm an imposter? Is that what you mean? [Peter laughs] I imagine you know what it's like to be an imposter, Mike. 

Peter: But I want to give a quick overview of the research, where the research comes from. In 1978, a pair of researchers at Oberlin, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes published a paper about high-achieving women experiencing the imposter phenomenon, a perpetual feeling of inadequacy that seems to persist despite consistent success. And this parallel feeling that your fraudulence will soon be exposed. The paper is very popular, spawns a ton of literature. In general, women appear to be more likely to attribute their failures to their own shortcomings, while men will more often attribute their failure to external factors. And, of course, there's all sorts of theory about what is causing this. And there appear to be numerous inputs, including the fact that women are often socially and professionally punished for expressing confidence, right? 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: So, Sandberg's solution has two components, one of which I think is reasonably good. And it's just that there should be more public awareness of this phenomenon, such that bosses hiring managers, etc., might have some context for these differences in behavior. The specific advice for women is just fake it till you make it to just manufacture confidence, and eventually it will generate real confidence, which I think is okay. But again, it does feel, after going through an entire chapter of here's what this imposter syndrome is, here's what it might stem from. There's all these cultural factors. Just be confident and just fake confidence, it just hits you as okay. It's just very unsatisfying. 

Michael: I will say, after 42 years of faking it, I don't know that it ever instills real confidence. I don't know that this is ever going to go away, honestly. Also, does anybody not feel like this? 

Peter: So, first of all, I think the answer to that is generally men feel this less. 

Michael: Okay. 

Peter: There's some indications that women of color feel it less, that actually they feel like they are competent and are not being treated as such, right?

Michael: Right. 

Peter: I think we're at a point now where one critique of this that keeps popping up is that we're actually oversaturated with this idea, and people are over diagnosing imposter syndrome, which, of course, is not an actual syndrome. That's another problem with it. We're at a point where people are using it so much that it's no longer productive, that not every feeling of insecurity you have can be described or should be described as imposter syndrome. 

Michael: And also, the bigger problem is probably that the country is being run by people who are fucking imposters and who are mediocre and shouldn't be in their positions. [laughs] 

Peter: That's the other side of it. In 2021, there was a really popular Harvard Business Review piece called Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. The basic premise is that the idea of imposter syndrome has become so common that it is now treated like women having imposter syndrome is itself the problem rather than what's really happening, which is this is the output of a set of misogynistic norms. The problem isn't just that women lack confidence. It's also that men are rewarded for overconfidence. And in turn, there is data showing that overconfidence is a bad quality in leadership. So, yes, imposter syndrome is real in the sense that it is describing a real phenomenon, but it's part of a fabric where companies are overvaluing traits displayed by men and undervaluing traits displayed by women. 

Michael: Right? 

Peter: You can't just say, “Oh, be more confident” as like an effective solution to all this. Women lacking confidence is a subset of the actual problem, right? 

Michael: Right. It's not that confidence isn't being valued. It's that competence isn't being valued, and confidence is being mistaken for competence. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: You don't solve an issue like this by just being more bold in meetings. 

Peter: This is almost like if someone was looking at hiring patterns and realizing that men are being hired way more than women, and they're looking at all the data and they're like, “Well, I think women should be wearing more suits,” right?

Michael: Right. 

Peter: It's like, no, the fact that people wearing suits are being hired at a higher rate is actually an output of a much broader issue.

Michael: When the real solution is pantsuits.

Peter: To be fair, there was a subset of professional women who thought that was the solution for a while there. 


Peter: All right, so let's talk about something that we've been circling around. The third chapter is called “Success and Likability.” And the first thing she talks about is this famous Heidi/Howard study. 

So, basically, in 2003, a couple of professors, Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson, ran a study where they told the story of Heidi Roizen, an entrepreneur, to a bunch of business students. Heidi Roizen is a real person. They described her success and her personality a bit, and they polled the students about their impressions of Heidi. And then they did the same thing again, except they changed Heidi's name to Howard. Lo and behold, the students were way more likely to view Howard as someone you'd want to work for as a good colleague. So, the basic lesson, of course, is that, yes, sexism is real. [laughs]

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: And all of these pre-existing gender stereotypes are built into how women are perceived in the workplace. 

Michael: There was the other famous-- I mean, this is just anecdote, but there was also the thing where two colleagues with basically the same job switched email signatures. So, they were doing the same thing, but Tom became Jennifer or whatever and vice versa. And Tom immediately was just like, “Why is everyone speaking to me this way?” Like why he is even being, even just on a daily, normal ass email correspondence way, the hostility just immediately ramped up by 15%. 

Peter: When you said email signatures, I initially thought that you meant a little quote below your name or whatever. It's like "Live, laugh, love" or something.


Michael: I should-- Yeah, don't put your love languages in here, Peter. That's why your emails are hostile. "Peter Shamshiri, quality time."

Peter: [laughs] That's what I do instead of pronouns, I focus on what matters. [Micheal laughs] So, this leads into a discussion of the negotiation gap. Sandberg cites a bunch of research showing that women negotiate less often and less aggressively than men. One study of master's students graduating from Carnegie Mellon showed that men negotiated for a higher starting salary 57% of the time and women 7% of the time. 

Michael: Holy shit. 

Peter: Massive difference. Other research has shown smaller but still very significant gaps. This is another area where I think Lean In deserves a lot of credit, because the idea of the negotiation gap was a popular topic in academic circles. But I don't think that it was super well known before the book. On the other hand, it's also an area where I think the public discourse didn't quite process the point. I think a lot of people understand the problem as just women need to negotiate more. I've seen more than one layperson basically interpret this as like, “Yeah, women are just worse at this.” 

Michael: Right, right, right, right, right.

Peter: That's what's happening here. Right? 

Michael: These phenomena are very interesting as a descriptive matter. Women are less likely to negotiate than men. That's, really interesting. But that's not the cause of the problem and fixing that will not fix the problem. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: I think academics on this probably understand this in a much more nuanced way than people who just hear this little factoid, and they're like, oh, and that's why you got to negotiate ladies. 

Peter: Exactly. I want to be clear. Sandberg actually lays this out in much more detail. She says, “Look, there are real drawbacks for women who negotiate” because, for example, women who take credit for their successes are often viewed less favorably. So, the point isn't that women are responsible for not negotiating more. It's that this is all a minefield for women. And now, what's really interesting about this is that the latest research actually shows that the negotiation gap may not really exist anymore, or at least is much smaller than it used to be. There was research published last year by Laura Kray, Jessica Kennedy, and Margaret Lee where they found that basically over the last several decades, the negotiation gap has significantly waned and has now possibly reversed. 

Michael: Is that the influence of this book, or are there other reasons for this? What explains that? 

Peter: So, the trend predates the book. 

Michael: Okay. 

Peter: They surveyed business school graduates, and they found that more women said that they negotiated their salary than men, and yet the gender pay gap in that population was still 22% in favor of men. This also builds on some research from 2016 that found that while there are situations where it's productive for women to negotiate more, negotiating more across the board actually decreases average salary for women. So, the research from last year also included studies that showed that the more someone attributes gender pay disparities to the negotiation gap, the more likely they are to oppose pay equity legislation.

Michael: Oh, that makes sense. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: And moreover, people who are exposed to the idea of the negotiation gap are actually more likely to believe certain gender stereotypes. 

Michael: Right. Because that's basically a proxy for conservative beliefs about gender. 

Peter: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, there's a real concern that the proliferation of this negotiation gap idea has been to some degree counterproductive. I just think that the way that this was digested by the public is very clearly women negotiate less and should negotiate more. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: They're lacking the killer instinct. Right?

Michael: Right. 

Peter: When in reality, the problem is that there are downsides for women who try to negotiate aggressively, and women respond rationally to that by negotiating less than men do in many situations. 

Michael: Whereas I have always taken the tactic of just not negotiating and being underpaid. We exist. We matter. 

Peter: [Laughs] I always just say, what's the most you're willing to pay me? [Michael laughs] That's the question. 

Michael: They ask me what my weakness is. I say I work too hard. No one's ever thought of that before. 

Peter: This is the trick that we don't tell women about. [Michael laughs]. So, the tapestry of the negotiation gap issue is actually really complex and interesting. It's also another area where Sandberg's practical advice really falls flat, given the scope of the problem that she has outlined. Some tips she gives, she says to use we instead of I when negotiating. 

Michael: Oh, no, it's word tips. Oh, no.

Peter: She says to provide justifications for the negotiation when you do it, because that tends to work for women, even though it doesn't actually help men.

Michael: This is like that shit from 4-Hour Workweek where he's like, “Don't say I have to get up early. Say I get to get up early.” [Peter laughs] I don't think words have this magical power like your alarm going off at 5 and you're like, "Hell yeah."

Peter: Wait, was that 4-Hour--? I think that might have been Atomic Habits

Michael: I don't even know anymore. 

Peter: One book, Michael, it doesn't matter. It’s all-- 

Michael: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. The book that we have talked about on this show. Yeah. 

Peter: [laughs] All right, hold on. Some negotiating tips for women from Sheryl Sandberg.

Michael: She says just being nice is not a winning strategy. Nice sends a message that the woman is willing to sacrifice pay to be liked by others. This is why a woman needs to combine niceness with insistence, a style that Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan, calls relentlessly pleasant. This method requires smiling frequently expressing appreciation and concern, invoking common interests, emphasizing larger goals, and approaching the negotiation as solving a problem, as opposed to taking a critical stance. Most negotiations involve drawn out, successive moves. So, women need to stay focused and smile. Dude, I feel like this is so much advice to women where it's like that thing in Ocean's Eleven where they're like, “You have to go in there and be friendly but not memorable. You have to tell jokes, but don't be funny.” It's like this very, very, very narrow band of acceptable behavior. 

Peter: That's the thing, is like, these aren't, I guess, bad pieces of advice in a vacuum. It just seems like her advice adds up to pay negotiations are a minefield for women, so my advice is to navigate that minefield perfectly. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah. 

Peter: It's not super productive because there's just too many obstacles here to dodge around. And not to mention, it feels a little bit gross to have the advice from someone very powerful basically be to deal with sexist tropes like smile. Don't forget to smile. 

Michael: This is always, I think, just like an inherent limitation of these books, because oftentimes what they're doing. They're giving advice about how to thrive in an unjust society. In a society where homophobia is rampant. Here's how to be a gay person in the workplace and not have slurs thrown at you. That's super fucked up. But also, people do need advice like this. Right?

Peter: 100%.

Michael: It feels fucked up to say, “Women should smile during pay negotiations.” But we do live in an extremely sexist society where some of this fake fucking femininity that you have to perform at work will actually help you rise up the ladder. But then the obvious critique to advice like this is like, “Fuck you. You're not giving any advice to fix the fucking larger problem.” You just can't thread the needle in these books. 

Peter: Right. And there's a rich tradition in marginalized communities of sharing this type of advice. Right? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: A lot of black writers and thinkers have talked about teaching their kid how to behave around police. They're not endorsing the fact that they are disproportionately affected by police violence. They're just trying to guide their child through it. You can see Sandberg's advice in that vein. But what's notably odd about Sandberg's advice is that not only is the advice itself just not very practical, but Sandberg is a very powerful person who is in a position to do more than just give women helpful tips. Right?

Michael: Right. Because in the police brutality metaphor, she's the cop. She's the one with power in this situation. She's on the other side of the negotiating table. 

Peter: There's a glaring omission in the negotiation gap prescription, which is that if the problem we're trying to overcome is the stereotyping and bias that appear individualized negotiations, one pretty potent solution would be to rely on collective negotiations, right?

Michael: Right, right, right. [laughs] 

Peter: The gender pay gap among unionized workers still exists, but is considerably smaller. And women in unions earn higher wages and better benefits almost across the board. There is not a single mention of unions in this entire book, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

Michael: Of course, yeah.

Peter: But just speaks to the walls that you run up against here, because Sheryl Sandberg is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Michael: That's because she smiles so much in the interview, though. 

Peter: Smiling my way to the top of the Sheryl Sandberg’s story. 

Michael: [laughs] Yeah. 

Peter: So, this discussion segues pretty nicely into what might be the second most prominent criticism of Lean In, which is that Sheryl Sandberg is an exceedingly wealthy human being, and the book reflects that and therefore is not super useful for the median woman. Now, I think this critique is more or less right. The entire book is geared toward white collar, professional women who make a lot of money. Nearly every anecdote is about upper-class professionals. The research is disproportionately about upper class professionals, both in the book and generally. There's just a ton of focus on elite jobs at big, prestigious companies. McKinsey does annual report on the state of women in the workplace, but the focus is specifically the corporate workplace, and the data is based on a survey of employees and companies where in 2023, the most common industry is asset management and investment. [Michael laughs]

That's not a survey on women in the workplace, that's a survey on corporations. One example of how this manifest in the book is when Sandberg is talking about childcare and the burdens that are placed on working women by simultaneously needing to work and having the social obligation to care for the kids.

Michael: Which is a real thing because of course there's still all these bullshit gendered expectations about women having to stay home and fucking do everything too. It's like there's two toxic set of gendered expectations going on at the same time. 

Peter: So, she speaks about this problem relatively eloquently. But I'm going to send you a bit of her advice.

Micheal: She says one miscalculation that some women make is to drop out early in their careers because their salary barely covers the cost of childcare. Childcare is a huge expense, and it's frustrating to work hard just to break even. But professional women need to measure the cost of childcare against their future salary rather than their current salary. Anna Feeler describes becoming a mom at 32 as the time when the rubber hits the road. A rising star in marketing, Anna was concerned that her after tax salary barely covered her childcare expenses. With husbands often making more than wives, it just seems like higher ROI to invest in his career, she told me. But she thought about all the time and money she had already invested in her career and didn't see how walking away made economic sense either. 

So, she made what she called a leap of blind faith and stayed in the workforce. Years later, her income is many times greater than what she almost withdrew. You must be nice, must be nice. 

Peter: So, to be clear, the advice is basically when you pull out of the workforce, you're hurting your future earnings. So, even though you're just breaking even with childcare now, it'll pay off in the future. And that's a really solid piece of advice for wealthy, white collar professional women who either have significant savings or a spouse that makes good money. But this is a complete non-starter for almost everyone in the country. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: Normal human beings cannot just absorb the cost of nearly your entire salary as an investment that'll pay off in seven years or something. 

Michael: Right. Because the ultimate resolution to this story is this woman kept her job and paid a good chunk of her salary to someone to look after her kids or a daycare or whatever. But that's not an option that a lot of people have. A lot of people just simply can't afford it. 

Peter: This feels so out of touch that I was just waiting for her to be like, yeah, well, obviously no one can do this, but you need food and shelter. 

Michael: I mean, does she even make, I guess, perfunctory mention of, like, well, not everybody can afford to do this? 

Peter: I don't remember if she does it in this part of the book, but there are several parts of the book where she gives these little asides. Like, not everyone can do this. This won't work for everybody. This is easier for certain people. She has a flickering awareness that this is unusual and that most people can't live like this. But she is never able to actually provide advice to people who can't do this stuff. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: One of the best portions of the book is when she is talking about what women should demand of their partners, essentially saying that men need to be responsible in the home if women are going to succeed in the workplace. Like, there needs to be division of labor at home. This makes perfect sense. 

Michael: You read this as a personal attack. What about the shelves? What about the nation's shelves? 

Peter: I think this stands out because it's one of the few times that she seems to be asking something of men in the book. 

Michael: Okay, yeah.

Peter: But something interesting that Bell Hooks pointed out in her critique. Bell Hooks, of course, the late, great feminist theorist, is that Sandberg admits offhand that her husband handles their finances.

Michael: Okay.

Peter: Now, I don't entirely know what it means to handle the finances when you are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Michael: He has two calls a year with their finance guy.

Peter: Just shooting email to the accountant or whatever. But what Hooks says is that this is actually a dangerous message to send to people who aren't rich. Because what Hooks and other feminist theorists and activists have been saying for a long time is that independence for women requires control of money. There's been a ton written about this. But in short, part of what perpetuates the subjugation of women is that within family units, men control the money, which helps them dictate how families operate, can pressure women to remain in bad and abusive relationships, etc., etc. Right?

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: So, this is a niche critique, but I found it very telling because not only is Sandberg just a little too rich to give practical advice about this, but it feels like she hasn't engaged with the literature quite to the degree that you would want from someone who is on a stage talking to all women in her own mind.

Michael: The only response to rich people giving financial advice like this is to just be like, “How much does a banana cost?” When rich people talk about financial management dealing with our personal finances, it's a totally different experience than poor people dealing with their finances, right?

Peter: Right. 

Michael: One of them is like, “Should we do like an index fund or like a target date mutual fund?” It's like dealing with structuring of excess. 

Peter: There's a disconnect with the ultra-rich that no amount of thoughtfulness is ever going to bridge the way that Sheryl Sandberg exists day to day is so different from a working class woman. She can't process what their lives are like in any meaningful way. 

Michael: As opposed to male podcasters. 


Peter: I did the work of talking to several women. I talked to seven women about this book. Okay? 

Michael: That's more than you've talked to in years. [Peter laughs] I'm just saying this for. No, I don't know why I'm being mean. That doesn't make sense. The thing is, I'm giving you shit about this, as if, as if, as if gay men are better than straight men on this. But gay men are misogynistic as fuck. They think that it's funny to be misogynistic and they're so fucking gross. So, I am not speaking from a group with a great track record on this. 

Peter: No. Like I said earlier, you are inherently more problematic [Michael laughs] in that you chose to abandon the traditional male/female dynamic and just have gay sex for the rest of your life. 

Michael: I like that we're fighting over which one of us is slightly less problematic for talking about this. Are we level 9 or level 10 bad for doing this episode? 

Peter: That's the key to winning the trust of our audience-


Michael: -is fighting over who's less qualified demographically. 

Peter: So, Sandberg does seem to be somewhat aware that this is all really for rich women, but she never fully admits it. She uses a ton of rhetoric that makes it seem like her concern is all women. But then when she really zones in, it's about white-collar professionals, right? 

Michael: Right, right. 

Peter: Her introductory chapter has a bunch of stats about the wage gap, and she says, “My intention is to offer advice that will resonate with women in a broad range of circumstances.” But in these same paragraphs, she says, “I believe that female leaders are key to the solution.” If you recall, that was also the focus of her TED Talk. Why aren't there more female leaders? It's all leadership oriented. More than one reviewer has called this trickle-down feminism, which I wrote down, I wrote down. I thought of that. I was like, “Ooh, trickle down feminism.” And I thought I was the most clever person in the world. [Michael laughs] Turns out I'm the thousandth person to describe it that way.

Michael: We just did the episode on the Claudine Gay Plagiarism scandal. It sounds like you plagiarized someone else, Peter, leaving your post.

Peter: One of the core problems with this book is that it's not entirely clear that this actually works, that the presence of women in leadership results in better results for women across an organization. The research on this is really interesting. For example, there's recent research showing that a female CEO is actually less likely to promote women into senior management. 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: Here's a study from a few years back showing that there's an implicit quota for women in senior management, meaning that and I'm quoting them, “The presence of a woman on a top management team reduces the likelihood that another woman occupies a position on that team.” 

Michael: I've heard enough. We need more male CEOs in this country. 

Peter: [laughs] You can also see this implied a bit by The McKinsey Women in the Workplace data, because since 2015, there has been a 65% increase in the number of women in the C-suite at the surveyed companies, but 7% to 8% increases in the number of women in entry level and managerial positions.

Michael: This is something we've talked about for various other topics too, that representation is obviously a necessary condition, but it's not a sufficient condition. 

Peter: I think it's also important that maybe what's happening is that companies know that it looks good to have a higher percentage of women in the C-suite. So, they pluck some out of senior leadership, and then they're like, “All right, job's done”

Michael: Right, right, right, right.

Peter: Some interesting qualifiers here. There's a good amount of evidence that a lot of these patterns change based on circumstance. Women aren't just innately opposed to hiring other women. One study found that women in prestigious positions are much less likely to hire other women, but women in less prestigious positions are actually more likely to hire women than men. 

That same study found that on teams that are majority female, the bias functionally drops away, and they just hire other women at about a 50% rate, which indicates that what's happening is possibly that women in leadership positions often avoid hiring other women because they perceive an implied quota for women in leadership, and they don't want to hire their own direct competition. But once there are more women on the team, they get more comfortable, that perception goes away, and their bias falls off completely, and they just start hiring women at a normal rate. So, Sandberg is half right here maybe. The presence of women in leadership, once it reaches a critical mass, might beget more women in leadership. There's not a ton of evidence that it will just naturally trickle down the ladder to more junior roles either. 

Michael: There's also companies where the few women who are in management positions, there's so much friction and so much bullshit that you have to deal with as one of the few women in the C-suite, that those women get driven out. [laughs] One of my best friends in Seattle is like a middle manager at a large tech company, and she is always the only woman in the room and having to be the one who raises her hand and says, I don't think this is addressing female users every fucking meeting. And then she has all these phone calls of people being like, “We need a woman's perspective. Can you be in this meeting?” And she's like, I have to do my actual job too. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: So, yeah, reaching that saturation point can take an extremely long time and goes and fits and starts and can be really hard on the women who have to actually do it. 

Peter: There's also an argument that this is just too far downstream of the real problem, which is that women are getting pushed out in the middle because they're being forced to choose between their families and a job. Right. 

Michael: Right.

Peter: Because we are not facilitating a world where women can have a child and maintain their position at work. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: That pushes women in their 20s and 30s, especially down the ladder a bit. And then 20 years later, there aren't going to be as many women in senior management. The men are just at this advantage that is the result of all these cultural and political norms. Well, how do you address that? A, by shifting those cultural norms, which I think Sandberg probably recognizes and does seem to recognize, B, extensive family leave policies, perhaps, right? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: She talks about family leave and the importance of it. The policies at Facebook were industry leading for a bit. So, I don't want to say that she deserves no credit there. But I do think that the actual solution, from a policy perspective, is much more comprehensive than someone like Sandberg is willing to accept. There's a related criticism of the book related to Sandberg's elitism that was made really forcefully by Susan Faludi, famous feminist author wrote Backlash. She wrote this review for The Baffler right after the book came out, and the idea is that this book is, in effect, an act of corporate PR and one that mirrors a long history of efforts to co-opt the aesthetics and rhetoric of feminism and liberation in service of consumerism and capitalism. 

Michael: Yeah, here at Facebook. Here's our posters. Absolutely. 

Peter: That one line shook me out of a stupor [Michael laughs] when I was reading it. All right, I'm going to send you a quote. She is talking here about how in the 1920s, when there were these nascent women's movements, they were undermined by consumerism. 

Michael: The rising new forces of consumer manipulation, mass media, mass entertainment, national advertising, the fashion and beauty industries, popular psychology, all seized on women's yearning for independence and equality and redirected them to the marketplace. Over and over, mass merchandisers promise women an ersatz version of emancipation, the fulfillment of individual and aspirational desire. Why mount a collective protest against the exploitations of the workplace when it was so much more gratifying, not to mention easier, to advance yourself and only yourself, by shopping for liberating products that express your individuality and signaled your seemingly elevated class status? 

Peter: So, she's making the case that Lean In fits into this mold, substituting solidarity with this individualized pursuit of corporate success. I went into this being aware that there was like this wave of criticism for Lean In. I wanted to go into it with an open mind, and I read it, and I was giving it a ton of credit in my brain until this review shook me out of it. It was so good. This is like, I mean, it’s a review that everyone who wants to understand this book should read. She reaches out to Facebook to ask for data on their demographics, which Facebook declines to provide. 

Michael: Nice. 

Peter: And what she focuses on is that Lean In is not just a book, it is also a nonprofit, leanin.org, that operates as an initiative of Sandberg's foundation, and it has a community groups that you can join, as well as literally hundreds of corporate and celebrity sponsors, from Chevron to Amazon to Oprah. Obviously, Facebook to be a partner requires no material commitment of any kind.

Michael: Nice. 

Peter: All of these power players very quickly signed onto the brand, which really makes it seem like the whole apparatus is essentially serving a PR function, right?

Michael: Right.

Peter: Because you're not trying to hold companies accountable if you're just letting them latch on to your little feminist brand and declare themselves allies. 

Michael: We see this too with John Roberts is a great little league coach or something. And it's like, what matters in your life is what you do with power. And the question is not whether Sheryl Sandberg is good at balancing her own career with her own personal life. It's like, what has she done with the immense power that she has. And has Facebook been a force for gender equality on the world writ large? 

Peter: The sum total of Facebook's contribution to material feminism is a slightly more generous leave policy than most of their tech counterparts. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: That's it. When Chevron can very safely align themselves with Lean In, what's happening is that Lean In is asking very little of Chevron because it's placing the burden on women themselves, right?

Michael: Right. 

Peter: Recall The Annual McKinsey Women in the Workplace report. That report is now done in partnership with leanin.org

Michael: Oh, nice. I didn't know it was still around. 

Peter: Oh, yeah, it's around, to give some color to this. In 2019, a Facebook employee, a mother who had just had her third child, asked Facebook if she could work part time from home while her baby was still young. They said no. She said, okay, what about unpaid leave? They said no again, so she resigned. And she left a very public post on the internal Facebook page voicing her displeasure, which got so much attention that Sheryl Sandberg herself responded to say that this is all stuff they want to do but can't do right now. This is a company that, of course, the very next year when COVID hit, successfully went fully remote just like everyone else, and also has invested $50 billion in the Metaverse since this all went down. [Michael laughs] 

Michael: I was wondering if you were going to bring that up. [laughs] You're like, this motherfucker doesn't have legs. 

Peter: Right, the fuck it. [laughs] The idea that they couldn't have done part time remote work for a limited time for new mothers. 

Michael: Come the fuck on. Yeah.

Peter: Right. Give me a fucking break. It's just not true. It's a choice that they're making. They're choosing to light billions of dollars on fire on the dumbest idea in human history instead of doing this right. 

Michael: This is the bare minimum if you care about this issue. 

Peter: But the good news, ladies, you can get unpaid leave in the Metaverse. [Michael laughs] There will be a virtual job with all the benefits that you dream of. I will say the later chapters of this book where Sandberg opens up. Usually, the later chapters of our books are the worst, because it's just the shit that gets shoveled to the later chapters. In Sandberg's case, I would say they're the least research heavy. They haven't resonated as much in the public consciousness, but they contain a lot of personal anecdotes that make her seem a little more likable, stories of her navigating through the business world in different ways. Again, there's a little too much Larry Summers for my taste. 

But when she's speaking a little more openly about just how it felt to be a woman in the workplace, this is something I heard from a couple of women I talked to that there are more points of friction for women than men in the workplace, and that steadily drags on them over the course of their lives. And it's proof to all women that this is a rot that stretches all the way up into the upper classes, right.

Michael: Right, right, right.

Peter:  If a woman who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars is still like, damn, this shit is sexist, then it really does never end. There's no escape. 

Michael: Right. I do think that there's a version of these types of books that can be written responsibly. It's just like, okay, here's decent advice for 6% of American women.

Peter: On one hand, I think that there is probably enough in this book that it's not a terrible introduction to certain feminist ideas for a young woman in the white-collar world. You get introduced to wage gap stuff, to concerns about childcare and all these cultural norms that swirl around it. But I also think there's a real danger that a generation of women might be viewing feminist thought through the lens of a billionaire who, like, when the chips are down, will side with her corporation over struggling women. It's not just that this is an introduction, necessarily, to feminist thought for a lot of people. It might be the sum total of the feminist thought that they are being exposed to. 

Michael: There's also such a missed opportunity with these groups, these support groups that get together. The idea of women meeting in their homes and being like, what challenges are we all facing as women this week is actually a fucking great idea. That's awesome. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: But it's like, oh, sponsors, like, Chevron presents Wednesday meetings at Marlene's house. [Peter laughs] It's, like, super fucked up. And the fact that it seems like they would be pruning those to a level where you wouldn't have a broad range of people going to those things, and you wouldn't have a real conversation about what can we actually do. 

Peter: Right. I want to also add, before we move on, there is a common critique of this book that I just think is bad, which is that all of this has been said before and said better by other feminists, theorists, thinkers, etc., etc., that's definitely true. I don't think that Sandberg views herself as someone who is introducing these ideas for the first time. She's just aggregating and popularizing. Which is a real role that we need. 

Michael: Despite the premise of this show, we both actually feel very strongly that pop nonfiction as a project is totally fine. We need this stuff. So, the fact that somebody's mainstreaming a bunch of stuff that has been around is actually great. 

Peter: Yeah, absolutely. And there are discrete ideas in this book that I think have resonated with the broader culture for good reason. The idea that women are more frequently interrupted in meetings was something that several people I spoke to said they hadn't heard articulated before, Lean In, but immediately recognized when they heard it. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: That stuff matters. It's important. Even if it's something that's going to impact white collar women more. It's a dynamic that a huge percentage of women have been exposed to and experienced. And, yeah, I think it's good that there is pop nonfiction talking about that. 

Michael: Yeah. Yeah. And also, this is going to sound like me being super problematic, but it's like, you also need to package these ideas in ways that men can absorb them too. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: And being like, I'm a corporate lady telling corporate dudes that they need to stop being shitty is actually pretty important and good. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: Although it doesn't sound like she's doing that much of that in the book but in principle.

Peter: Frankly, she's not. What I was hoping she would talk about a bit more is like, there's cool research showing hedge funds run by women, for example, are more successful than hedge funds run by men. One way to think about that is that maybe women are just better at managing money. The smarter way to think about it is that women who are in those positions have done more to earn them than men. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: And tend to just be performing better for that reason. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: I think that stuff is important because it shows that this discrimination is obviously real and also has something to say to elites. Hey, the fact that you are allowing a culture of misogyny in your organization, that is harming your bottom line. 

Michael: I like that we're doing the opposite of making up a guy to be mad at. We're making up a lady who wrote a good book. [Peter laughs] In principle, a book like this could have been fine. 

Peter: One of our listeners who actually wrote that book is, like crying right now. 


Michael: Talk about a good book for once, Mike and Peter. This is the most common feedback we get on our show about bad books. [Peter laughs] Why don't you do a good book? 

Peter: So, to wrap this episode up, I think we should just have a big picture conversation about the corporate feminist moment. It does feel like Lean In was the peak of this movement, and now we've seen a pretty widespread backlashed against it from the left, but also, of course, from the right. I feel like it gets so much flak, the idea of white corporate feminism, because the way that a lot of people see it is that rich white women are in second place.

Michael: Right, right, right, right.

Peter: Above them is wealthy white men. Below them, everyone else.

Michael: Everybody, yeah.

Peter: And so, to build a political movement around their advancement is very literally the shallowest form of liberation that you can imagine. But the thing is that you can't fully disentangle corporate feminism from feminism itself.

Now, despite cultivating straight guy vibes on this show, I do have a weirdly large number of friends and acquaintances who are feminist scholars or academics of some type. 

Michael: I could tell from the whiff of soy when we met in person [Peter laughs] Smell like a fucking tofu aisle at the grocery store. 

Peter: And, yeah, I was able-- I picked a lot of their brains very informally on this stuff. 

Michael: You said, how do I not get yelled at [laughs] doing an episode as a man about Lean In? This is a conversation I've had with my friends too. It's fine. 

Peter: I gave them a list of the jokes I planned to make, [Michael laughs] and they returned them to me all crossed out. [laughs] One of the common threads I got was all of them were hyper skeptical of Lean In and Lean In style corporate feminism. But they all had some concern that circled around this idea that we live in a world where this type of feminism is heavily criticized. But if it is not replaced with an affirmative feminism, something that does work for a broad swath of women, then what we're left with is just the critique. And if all that remains in our cultural memory is just this critique of corporate feminism, then it's hard to imagine a positive outcome. It feels like maybe this just manifests in a critique of feminism itself or a world where feminism is perceived to have produced a failed movement of some kind. 

Michael: Do you have a narrative, Peter? Like, what explains the rise and fall of corporate feminism. 

Peter: I've now read a lot about it, and the only thing that I can say with confidence is that there's this broader narrative where women enter the workforce, and we reach a point where there are a few senior women, but clearly not enough. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: And as a society, we're telling ourselves that a lot of the problems with women's rights are in the rear-view mirror, and yet we are all staring at a leadership class that is clearly dominated by men.

Michael: And invested in the interests of men, even though it is more female than it used to be. 

Peter: Right. I think that's what spurs this moment. There's a narrative that society is telling itself about how far we've come, and then there's the fact that you can look out at the senate and be like, “Okay, well, what the fuck are we even talking about here?” Right. 

Michael: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I always think about is that at the moment of the Google memo. 

Peter: Sure. 

Michael: He wrote that whole thing of, like, “Oh, women, their brains can't do math or whatever,” at a time when Google was 80% men. 

Peter: Right, right. 

Michael: It's like the sense of threat among men at these extremely male-dominated workplaces becoming slightly less male dominated is like a very, very powerful force. 

Peter: Yeah. To process the scope of male backlash against feminist progress. There's evidence that opposition to feminism has risen among young liberal men in the last three years. 

Michael: Oh, wow. 

Peter: In 2020, there was a Pew study that said 60% of men across parties agreed that feminism was empowering, and 34% said it was outdated. In 2022, Southern Poverty Law Center did a poll where they found that 62% of young republican men said feminism is a net negative for society, 46% of young democratic men also said it was a negative.

Michael: Oh.

Peter: So, we're reaching the point where young democratic men are almost, as a general matter, opposed to feminism. 

Michael: What do you make of that? What do you think explains it? 

Peter: Their explanation was that this is reaction to me too. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: This is overcorrection for what people perceive of as the excesses of me too. 

Michael: You mean like two famous rapists went to jail? 


Michael: We're in this moment where the fucking backlash to progress is always so much bigger than the fucking alleged progress itself. 

Peter: You're thinking about it pretty narrowly, but this is a time when we need The Cosby Show more than ever. 


Michael: God, Peter. 

Peter: There's also questions about social media, echo chambers where other than ours, every podcast that involves two men [Peter laughs] I know is basically just two guys complaining about women. Maybe that's a problem. 

Michael: The sense of threat among dudes to transpeople and feminism and stuff is genuinely the thing that I cannot get my head around and feels so dangerous and scary.

Peter: Some men hate women so much that they choose to have sex with men.


Michael: You're going to bring this back to how I'm problematic.

Peter: I'm never letting-- I'm never letting up on this. This is my thing.


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