Foster's rebuttal to Sandberg's 'Lean in' is a direct challenge to the performative elements brands and companies employ in a time when Feminism is en vogue.
The cover of Lean Out by Dawn Foster depicts a middle finger, and with the title of the book so transparently oppositional to Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in’ which began a cultural phenomenon in 2013, it's clear that the middle finger is being directed towards the claims from the Corporate Feminism manifesto.
Sheryl Sandberg - COO of Facebook - authored Lean in in 2013. The book was born from a successful TED talk purporting to support and push women up the corporate business ladder to claim their rightful place alongside the majority male dominated spheres. A great message right? The issue that some critics (including Foster) take with Sandberg’s arguments is that her vision is unrealistic in a broadly impactful sense. While it is positive to have women see greater value in themselves and strive to personally progress in life, the message in 'Lean in' is that by eating sleeping and breathing work and put personal needs aside, ANY woman can make it in the corporate world. Sandberg's approach to corporate career advancement centres around 'working the systems' as opposed to changing the systems which make it difficult for women to progress in the first place. Its not sustainable, cannot be applied to women as a whole, and while it may work for some it begs the question 'at what cost'? Sandberg herself purports to have responded to work emails in the hospital the day after giving birth so as not to fall behind. Should we admire this? Or should we instead be critical of the pressures and expectations corporate culture have of women if they hope to make it as far as their male counterparts?
At the heart of Foster’s book is a call for women to act collectively to change the unequal systems in place, rather than encourage women to work twice as hard to progress individually. Lean Out argues that Corporate Feminism ultimately serves the 1% and rhetoric such as that put forward by Sandberg only further depoliticises Feminism and halts collective change and progress. She challenges the argument that putting a few women at the top will inevitably result in a positive trickle down effect for all women citing the policies of Prime Ministers Thatcher and May as examples of women in powerful positions acting against the best interests of women as a collective.
Corporate Feminism seeks to exhibit extremely rich women, not as symbols of our increasingly unequal society and distribution of wealth, but as saviours of womanhood: because they have succeeded, now you can too. So people lap up individual success stories and trawl over details of CEO’s daily routines, looking for the secret habits that cause these people to be successful. - Dawn Foster, Lean Out
Unlike Sandberg’s anecdotal references and personal experiences supporting her arguments for her Lean In manifesto, Foster utilises research and extensive reading to cement her points. At 81 pages in length Lean Out is a 'to the point' no nonsense response to Neoliberal notions of female empowerment covering issues from zero hours contracts to maternity leave and emotional labour. In many ways Lean Out is reminiscent of Postfeminist criticism put forward by researchers such as Angela McRobbie whose extensive work on the changing notions and responses to Feminism has been highly influential both for me personally and within the fields of media, education and cultural studies. One such prevalent example from Lean Out is Foster’s criticism of ‘Brand Feminism’ where Feminist slogans and visuals are employed by businesses to sell products or to enhance company optics when it is deemed ‘trendy’ or ‘progressive’ to do so.
Anti ageing skin cream at the forefront of a women in STEM ad campaign
Foster calls for us to lean out of the idea that it’s ‘every woman for herself’ and instead direct our attention to overarching social issues and structures which still limit women at large to fulfil their potential. Instead of looking inwards we should seek to make a collective and impactful change when we are presented with policies which have the potential to limit or even redact progress.
'Lean out' is recommended reading for anyone who is still not convinced that Feminism is needed in today’s society. Conversely, it is recommended reading for anyone who is skeptical about the ways in which Feminist vernacular is used by corporations and those in positions of power as a vehicle to serve their own individual gains.
Foster, D. (2015) Lean Out, Repeater: London
For further thoughts and recommended reading around Neoliberalism you might be interested in my article about McMindfulness by Ronald Purser.