Partly because I’m a guy, partly because my professor insisted on holding our Feminism and Culture class at 8 a.m., making it impossible for me to attend, I find myself now, decades later, far behind the curve of gender empowerment. The curve is shifting heavily to the distaff side. Can I still say “distaff”?
The statistics proving the point come in bite-size, journalist-friendly squibs: Men make up only half the labor force, down from 70 percent a generation ago. Sixty percent of the bachelor’s degrees in the United States are earned by women. Women hold most entry-level managerial jobs. Single women in urban areas out-earn men by as much as 8 percent, on average. Among all younger women, the infamous “pay gap” with men has shrunk to statistical insignificance. By some measures women dominate most of the fastest-growing professions. Over the last 30 years, their wages have risen 25 percent while those of men have fallen 4 percent.
I like to think that my Feminism and Culture professor, whatever became of her, would be pleased at the turn of events—view it indeed as a kind of triumph and vindication. But I can’t be sure. She might be pleased, or she might be one of those people who nod vigorously while reading the boffo bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. The book was released a year ago this month, and has been in the top 10 of the bestseller list ever since.
Sandberg’s book has been dismissed here and there as classist—the indulgence of a privileged woman who has abandoned the struggle now that she is safely at the top and has refashioned feminism to fit the desires of the fortunate few. And it is hard to argue with the criticism when you keep falling over sentences like this one: “The night before Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead the women’s protests that toppled Liberia’s dictator, she was at a book party in my home.” I guess you had to be there.
At the same time, though, the criticism isn’t entirely fair. Rich as Croesus, successful beyond the dreams of all but a handful of industrial titans, Sandburg is animated by the same itchy agitation and discontent that have always animated the feminist cause. She insists, as feminists always have, that there is always more to do to empower the sisterhood and herself. And she continues to try to spread the word. Having more money than she knows what to do with, she started a foundation, the Lean In Foundation.
What does the foundation do? According to the mission statement, Lean In “is focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions” and “changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do.” It is “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.” It will “talk openly about the challenges women face and work together,” and thereby “change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.”
Focusing, encouraging, supporting, offering, conversing, talking, changing, and working together: not much, in other words. The website also plays brief video lectures, such as “Be Your Own Hero,” “Own the Room,” and “Managing Difficult Conversations.” You can watch as many as you want, no charge. It’s on Sandberg’s dime.
The foundation’s latest and most tangible initiative, announced toward the end of February, is a partnership with Getty Images, one of the world’s largest suppliers of stock photography—those generic, instantly forgettable pictures that editors use to illustrate their magazines and websites and that marketers use to make their advertisements irresistible to the plain folks. Getty is now curator of the Lean In Collection. Editors and marketers who can afford to will be able to buy stock photographs “devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls, and the people who support them.” Profits from the Lean In Collection will go to the Lean In Foundation, which supports the Lean In Collection. We can expect much focusing, offering, conversing, and talking in the years ahead.
The Lean In Collection is a crystalline reflection of the book it’s named after. The book’s theme is that the progress of women as a sex is being retarded through the stereotypes that society imposes on its luckless victims, who then internalize them. “Marketing is both reflective of our stereotypes and reinforces stereotypes,” Sandberg told the New York Times at the collection’s unveiling. There are two kinds of stereotypes running through Lean In, though the author and her ghostwriter are aware of only one of them. Stereotypes are what she disapproves of—women as mommies, deferential wives, unambitious workers, overwhelmed strivers. On the other hand, women as masters of their environment, whether home, workplace, marriage, family, or public life—these are clichés she approves of, and therefore cannot be stereotypes.
The idea that human beings, and women especially, take their identities haplessly from the impress of forces beyond their control is a very old one, and it has become a staple of social science research—endlessly studied, endlessly discovered, endlessly proved. “I rely on hard data [and] academic research,” Sandberg writes proudly, and innocently, and her book is heavy with citations from social science. The data and research are of a particular kind that will be familiar to anyone who has dipped into our vast literature of marketing, business, and self-help as it touches on questions of sex and power.
Nearly all the research she cites has been produced by social scientists who were drawn to their trade to fight what they saw as the insidious and often violent exploitation of women in this country. They have joined like-minded social scientists to design experiments that, for reasons of convenience and expense, are forced to rely on college students, who have learned in their social science classes that the oppression of women is insidious and often violent. The experiments always yield positive results. The findings are fashioned into papers. These are published in journals that, as a guard against bias and a guarantor of methodological soundness, are reviewed by a panel of peers who went into social science to fight the insidious and often violent exploitation of women. The data are clear: The exploitation of women is insidious and often violent. It’s pretty much settled science by now.
Along with its scientific trappings, the hopeful note in Sandberg’s book has proved crucial to its success. Those internalized stereotypes can be overcome! “We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today,” she writes. And this is the point of the new Lean In Collection, too. “One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it,” one marketer told the New York Times. “The thing about these images is they work on an unconscious level to reinforce what people think people should be like.” We’re still hapless chumps, in other words, but by being exposed to the images of the Lean In Collection, we will be better, more empowered hapless chumps. All we have to do is look. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Sandberg likes to say.
Helen Keller would probably disagree, but Helen Keller was too fusty to be the ideal woman of the Lean In future. (Terrible dresser, for one thing.) The point of the new empowered world is made plain in Lean In the book. “Getting rid of these internal barriers,” Sandberg writes, “is critical to gaining power.” The power Sandberg advocates is power as it has been traditionally defined in the old world of masculine dominance: rising to the top of hierarchical organizations, telling subordinates what to do, making lots of money, gaining the personal license to release yourself from the nettlesome demands of other people and of everyday life to do whatever you want—or, in the perfumed jargon of contemporary feminism, to “pursue your dreams” and “follow your passion wherever it leads.” Sandberg wants (and has herself won) power in the brute material sense, and the Getty images are intended to encourage this desire in her comrades.
An hour with the Lean In Collection allows us to glimpse what our world will look like as it races toward perfection. The titles of the photos are self-explanatory. “Portrait of woman working in a machine shop.” “Female surgeon using digital tablet after work.” “Two women doing pushups with dumbbells in crossfit gym.” There’s a soldier, several surfers, some mountain climbers, and one nervy woman tiptoeing along a slackline. It’s important to note that “Female woodworker nailing custom cabinet in workshop” is working on a custom cabinet; artisanal craftsmanship replaces mass production in the Lean In world. They can afford it! When you see “Two smiling mature women sitting outside on patio having appetizers,” you will swoon over the rustic getaway and know that one of them bought it with cash.
Women will spend a great deal of time in coffee shops in the Lean In future, either singly or in pairs. Mobile devices are their ever-reliable companions. Women will all be pretty—well, most of them—though too many of them, to my mind, will sport tattoos. Even the old women (“Glamorous mature woman smiling”), while unavoidably wrinkly, toss cascades of glowing white hair and beam from tanned faces, suggesting the undying sensuality that is the Lean In woman’s birthright. They get tons of exercise, too, young and old and middle-aged, in airy, skylit gyms, which explains why none of them is fat. You can tell they aren’t fat because they wear yoga pants usually.
There will be very few books around, unless you count office binders. There will be even fewer men. The men who do sneak into the empowered world will be used for changing diapers, listening politely to a Lean In manager while admiring the charts on her whiteboard, and playfully holding children aloft, at arm’s length. Women will play with their children too, in educational ways that involve devices with flat screens. But mostly women will be working, and mostly in offices. Their offices will be exceptionally tidy and bare. A recurring setting is the glass-walled conference room, adjacent to a floor-to-ceiling window, on a high floor. The view in the future will be of a spectacular skyline and a vast cityscape stretched far below. The world will be lit by natural light, which is useful for catching the glimmer of good-natured determination that shines from the eye of the Lean In woman.
Quite often they will be working late. It’s notable how many of these images are crepuscular: “Professional wo-man working late in city,” for instance, and “Business woman on tablet at night.” The twilight quality of the collection is unmistakable, as though we are coming to the end of something. Working late or early, Lean In women spend much of their time looking out the window, pensively, with a hint of a thousand-yard stare, until the Guatemalan cleaning ladies come clambering to disturb the reverie. Is it nosy to ask what the Lean In women are thinking?
Pondering the images I thought again of my feminism teacher. I do think she’d be pleased with today’s state of affairs. The Lean In Collection makes our current condition plain. The collection isn’t about “empowering women”; it’s about flattering women who are already empowered, riding high in the saddle rather than marching in the streets, placards in hand. The collection itself is today’s placard. It says: “Congratulations . . . to me! I won!”
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.