Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! Hope you enjoyed all 23 hours of it.
During the first week of Women’s History Month this year, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, Lean In author, and TED talker, gave us a great, albeit unintentional, demonstration of feminism’s continuing importance. LeanIn.org, the website and advocacy group launched by Sandberg in 2013 to accompany her book, began its third year of existence by introducing #LeanInTogether, a hashtag campaign aimed at encouraging men to do their part for gender equality at home and in the workplace. The website offers “Tips for Men” such as “Be a 50/50 Partner,” “Help Your Daughter Lead,” and “Evaluate Performance Fairly,” and the campaign encourages women to use the #LeanInTogether hashtag on social media to “celebrate men leaning in.” Sandberg also penned an op-ed with business professor Adam Grant in Sunday’s New York Times, the online edition of which was entitled “How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and the Bedroom.” In it, Sandberg and Grant counsel men to embrace feminist goals, pointing to research that shows gender equality is good for business (both the boardroom and bedroom types).
Let’s put aside for a minute the inherent ridiculousness of the idea that two years of talking to women about women’s problems is enough, and that, as one email announcing the campaign put it, “It’s time to talk about the other 50%: men!” Let’s bracket the fact that this kind of campaign tacitly acknowledges the legitimacy of the ridiculous canard that feminism “focuses too much on women,” or “leaves men out.” And let’s try extra hard to ignore the idea that one of the few organizations ostensibly dedicated to advancing the interests of women decided to use International Women’s Day to announce that it was going to start talking to men more.
Having overlooked all of those issues, there’s nothing wrong with wanting men to be involved in pushing for gender equality nor with the idea that feminism is good for society as a whole or good for men in particular. The problem with #LeanInTogether is the laughable smallness of what it’s asking, combined with the idea that men need to be encouraged and cajoled into doing even that.
Take the “Tips for Men,” which the website groups into “at home” and “at work.” The descriptions do point out a few facts that the average man might not be expected to know, such as the impact having a man’s name on your résumé has been shown to have on one’s job search prospects. In spite of this, the steps that men are asked to take seem to add up to (a) do half of the housework, (b) spend time with your daughters and encourage their ambitions, and (c) treat the women that you work with like human beings. Nowhere are men asked to sacrifice anything in the name of equality, beyond what’s obviously required by the fact that women are people. No one is asking men, for example, to consider dedicating themselves to helping promote their wives’ careers, in compensation for all the men who have had professional success only because of women who worked hard to raise their children, clean their houses, and look good on their arms at cocktail parties. No one is asking them to consider not asking for a raise until they know that the women in their office get paid as much as they do. No one is even asking them to occasionally watch a WNBA game when they would rather watch Lebron James.
That’s not to say that #LeanInTogether should be asking men to do any of those things. I fully understand that a women’s organization might want to avoid focusing on the negative or doing anything that could be characterized as nagging. But at the same time that the campaign asks men to do what the most basic notion of fairness requires, it acknowledges that they can’t even be expected to do this without praise and encouragement from the women in their lives. #LeanInTogether In Action encourages people to celebrate “A man up to his elbows in a sink full of suds. A dad reading to his son at bedtime. A colleague who chimes in when a woman is interrupted,” by posting pictures and messages on social media. The implicit message is that men who do even the most basic housework or parenting tasks should be viewed as heroes, not as doing what basic decency requires. A picture of Hugh Jackman taking out the trash with the #LeanInTogether hashtag got 57,000 likes on Instagram. To be clear: Hugh Jackman should take out the trash. And Hugh Jackman should say he’s for gender equality. But Hugh Jackman should not be celebrated as a hero of the women’s movement because he took out the trash and said he was for gender equality. And neither should any other man who takes out the trash or washes the dishes, even 50% of the time. Giving up privilege that you never should have had in the first place isn’t heroism; it’s just decency.
One problem with #LeanInTogether is that it takes it as a given that men will never do even what’s so morally obvious without there being something in it for them. But even more troubling is that Sandberg seems to think that the only things women have in their arsenal are praise and the promise of more money and sex. Not only is the possibility of moral suasion absent, so is the notion that women could use any more forceful means to actually push for equality in the workplace and at home. Sandberg and Grant’s op-ed ends with a history lesson which is appropriate, but perhaps not in the way they intend. They point out that the American suffrage movement was unsuccessful when it tried to argue that women had the moral right to cast their own ballots, and only triumphed when it argued that giving women the vote would benefit men as well. The suffragists couldn’t win by appealing to the conscience of the powerful, nor did they have the political or economic power to force men to accept the 19th Amendment. The fact that Sandberg and Grant see the current situation as parallel to the fight for women’s suffrage is about as damning an indictment of moral progress and of the record of feminism as I can imagine. #LeanInTogether seems to be premised on the idea that despite nearly a century of women’s struggles, feminists have no more tools to push for equality today than they did in 1920.
Luckily, the situation in reality is not that dire. Feminism has achieved some legal protections for women as well as the crucial ability to actually push for more legal changes through the ballot box. And there are plenty of men today who wash half of the dishes (or more!) and treat the women who work for them fairly simply because they realize it’s the morally decent thing to do. But the fact that a leading women’s organization would decide that the best way to promote equality is to address these kinds of timid and cynical appeals to men proves that feminism still has a long way to go and a lot left to achieve.