Who ‘leans in’ and how? Masculinities in workspaces

In 2010, the then Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, delivered a TED talk entitled ‘Why we have too few women leaders’. This talk spawned the now-infamous 2013 book Lean In which lays out her brand of corporate feminist doctrine in greater detail. The crux of Sandberg’s argument is that women lack the assertiveness and ambition of their male colleagues, and that is why they fail to get ahead in their careers.

The nature of Sandberg’s assertion that women should ‘lean in’ – in practice mimicking the behaviour of men in power – is troubling in the actions it urges. However, what is perhaps more interesting is what it reveals about her dated understanding of feminism: thinking of inequalities in terms of conventional gender binaries of ‘men’ and ‘women’. bell hooks has critiqued Sandberg for this very reason in her essay ‘Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In’, where she argues that Sandberg’s definition of feminism is limited to thinking within the existing social system where “structures of imperialist white supremist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged.” As hooks argues, the brand of feminism that Sandberg strives for is very much that – a brand – limited in its capacity to analyse the multiple, nuanced femininities and masculinities that operate in and control workspaces.

The late Dawn Foster, an inimitable British journalist and political commentator, also skewered Sandberg’s corporate feminism in her 2016 book Lean Out. Foster argues that it is no surprise that Sandberg’s message appeals to many: the doctrine of leaning in tells women that success relies wholly on talent – not luck, privilege, or coincidence – and that the immovable object of workplace inequality is really no match for the unstoppable force of hard work and ambition. Sandberg’s advice, like the advice of so many others, asks marginalised people to do the work to better conform to a hostile environment. There is no call for the environment itself to change.

This myth of meritocracy can also manifest outside of paid workspaces, in activist and organising groups. Spaces where, ironically, the critique of such power structures is central. In these environments, the focus is often on the exterior – can we work towards a better world out there? Though such visionary thinking can be truly fulfilling, interior reflection about the environment where this work is done can often be missed. In these unpaid work spaces, although the aim of labour input is drastically different to corporate work, the rhetoric of ‘leaning in’ remains persuasive. The ‘masculine’ characteristics of assertion and ambition that Sandberg praises can quickly establish long-lasting power dynamics within a group. These carry through to all activities, from internal meetings to public-facing direct actions, and too often decide who is handed the megaphone – symbolically and literally.

To paraphrase Foster once more, corporate feminism upholds extremely wealthy and powerful women, such as Sandberg, as ‘saviours of womanhood’: their success is intended to serve as a promise that you too can succeed. However, as the testimonies we collected demonstrate, Sandberg’s advice  is not a cure-all remedy. In some workplaces, people of marginalised genders, such as the chef below, may feel under pressure to conform to a “boys’ club” environment to get ahead. However, others, like the librarian, find contentment in roles considered “feminine” despite them being devalued. As seen in a testimony from a Marxist activist, the pressure of conforming to a ‘boys’ club’ can also operate in political spaces, as liberation struggles regarding gender and sexuality feel secondary for marginalised genders. Finally, for some, such as the civil servant transgressing expected gendered behaviour can even result in backlash. 

Cis woman, civil servant:

“For me, being a woman in the workplace has always meant padding out my emails with niceties – “no worries if not”, or “hope this is okay” – to avoid coming across as abrasive or pushy. On the one occasion I decided to cut it all out, when emailing a client who had repeatedly missed deadlines for high-profile and time-critical work, I was met with a complaint to my manager about my “blunt tone”. Had a more senior, male colleague sent the email, I’m certain they wouldn’t have taken offence.” 

Cis woman, trainee teacher:

“Career progression in teaching for women often means moving into pastoral roles, as opposed to curriculum development or managerial roles. There’s this implicit, or sometimes explicit, expectation that women teachers have a naturally caring disposition.

“There are many, many more women than men working in primary teaching, and I think at whatever age the primary teacher role is seen as a proxy mother, which I feel quite uncomfortable with.”

Despite the belief that women are more equipped to deal with the emotional, pastoral side of teaching, there is a pressure to restrain your own emotions in the classroom: “If you shout as a woman you seem hysterical, but men can get away with it more.”

Cis man, studying MA International Development and Humanitarian Intervention:

“Within the education space of humanitarianism, and particularly on my university course, there is a considerable gender imbalance – of the ninety-plus students enrolled, male students make up roughly 15%. Despite this, there is an imbalance of self-confidence: whilst I can’t speak for all the women-identifying students, many of my friends feel a high level of imposter syndrome, and that they don’t deserve to be on the course.

“They also feel this in terms of applying for jobs; most wouldn’t apply for a position that they feel they won’t get. I, on the other hand, apply to any job I am interested in irrespective of my qualifications, from a sense that – since I got onto this course – I absolutely deserve to be here. Rather than feeling imposter syndrome, it has reinforced my pride in my own ability.

“I don’t know if this speaks to a system that advantages men, or disadvantages women (quite likely both), but there is a certain freedom in being one of only a few males in a female dominated space – I can relax more and essentially embrace a personality as “a bit of an idiot”, while still being an intelligent student. This in part is what gives me the freedom to apply for jobs beyond my qualifications; it’s true to this crafted persona that I would be stupid enough to waste time on longshot applications, so I lose nothing by doing it, but if it comes off no one would be surprised either.” 

Non-binary person, working in library and studying MSc Archiving and Library Science:

“I struggle with how I want to take a caring role, and have a hand in community support, especially within a library context. I’m worried not only about emotional and physical burnout but also ceding to gendered expectations of myself and my work.

“My desire to have a more caring role within libraries and archives makes me feel almost guilty and unsure about it, almost as if it’s the unfeminist thing to do. I’m very aware that it’s men who end up in leadership and managerial roles, and women who do the public-facing, customer service roles. However, I think perhaps, deep down, I want to prioritise community support more than I want to prioritise having professional respect.

“I’m also thinking a lot more recently about how my degree, and my work, is highly technical and highly skilled. I joke a lot about it a lot – about being a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths] student – but is a STEM degree.

“In my degree, I often feel encouraged to distance myself from librarianship. I think librarianship is often considered to be the archive profession’s less professional, more feminine counterpart, and that people who work in archives try to distance themselves from libraries, and perhaps, in a way, from femininity. Sometimes I think archiving and library sciences are only considered STEM when a man is doing it.” 

Cis woman, trainee chef:

“I’m really thankful to be in a place of work that is trying to minimise the gender gap, mainly by hiring more apprentices who are women – and yet, there’s a lot of things that come to mind when thinking about being a woman in the workplace like this. The culture around this type of business – kitchens, hospitality, the food business – has always been a boys’ club. 

“Even if your colleagues are understanding, like in my job, where they encourage everyone to help, I think there is still such a deep-rooted culture of being hardcore, not needing anyone, and not being a team player. I think the problem is that this job is considered a slightly militaristic job. This work doesn’t give you much time for a personal life, it takes over, that’s what it means to be a chef. I don’t think that should be a badge of honour – I think we all deserve to have a job that respects who we are as human beings outside of the workplace. This impacts women, as, more often than not, it is them who have to go back home and take care of children.

“Even in the way that kitchens are built, they’re not made for women’s bodies: things like the countertops being higher and having to ask for help lifting. You are always told to push your physical strength and the people who are telling you to push have a completely different experience in the workplace, because they’re mainly men. There is this feeling of being constantly reminded that your colleagues are mainly men, and that they don’t really know what it is to be a woman in a kitchen environment.

“This is a job about feeding people, and the majority of feeders in this world are women. Yet, we call them cooks, or home cooks, and we internalise it – I’ve noticed that a lot of women don’t call themselves chefs until they are at the highest peak of their career. It’s not the same for men, who are just starting in the kitchen and already call themselves chefs. I don’t feel like I deserve that title, but why not? I do the same job, I am there for the same hours, I put in the same responsibility, and yet I kind of feel like I am not part of the group.

“I go to college once a week: they’re supposed to be training us, we are supposed to be the future of the industry, and yet I am the only woman in a group of fifteen in this class. They continue to do slightly misogynistic comments and they go unnoticed, because I am the only woman in there. No one pays a lot of attention to it, and yet it seeps into the culture that these young men are going to bring into kitchens.

“I think it really helps to have women around in kitchen environments, it helps to share experiences with them, and reminds you that you deserve to be there. However, it’s not only the women who have to bring that change, but also about those in power making the space.”

Genderqueer woman, activist:

“Even though radical leftist spaces oppose the existence of any type of patriarchal hierarchies, they are often dominated by cis men. As a young Marxist woman, I found it hard to adjust in these groups and make my voice heard among a sea of well-read Marxist men. Often I felt like, as a woman, the arguments I make have to be as smart and polished as I can possibly make them sound. Going in I have to prove to these men, often older, that I’m just as capable and radical as they are regardless of my gender or age. I’m not just an impressionable young girl, and sometimes the way they’ll talk back at me makes me feel like that’s the way they see me!

“Another frustrating thing I have encountered in these spaces is the lack of interest in issues regarding gender inequality or LGBTQ+ liberation. Many Marxist men see this as a side-track to the greater and more important problem of class struggle. As radical as they may be, their unwillingness to confront the ways they have also internalised power structures causes them to ignore other potential avenues for liberation of oppressed peoples. How can they expect to create a fair and equal society when they can’t even enforce these values on themselves?”

Ruby Hann, Politics Editor & Trisha Mendiratta, Society & Community Editor

graphic by wonderful Clitbait graphic designer Peggy Mitchell