Books : reviews

Dawn Foster.
Lean Out.
Repeater. 2015

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 20 October 2018

Sheryl Sandborg’s business advice book Lean In was heralded as a defining moment in attitudes to women in business. But for all its commercial success, it proposed a model of feminism that was individualistic and unthreatening to capital.

In her powerful debut work Lean Out, acclaimed journalist Dawn Foster unpicks how the purportedly feminist message of Sandberg’s book neatly exempts patriarchy, capitalism and business from any responsibility for changing the position of women in contemporary culture.

It looks at the rise of a corporate ‘1% feminism’, and at how feminism has been defanged and depoliticised at a time when women have home the brunt of the financial crash and the gap between rich and poor is widening faster than ever.

Surveying business, media, culture and politics, Foster asks whether this ‘trickle-down’ feminism offers any material gain for women collectively, or acts as mere window-dressing PR for the corporations who caused the financial crash. She concludes that ‘leaning out’ at the corporate model is a more effective way of securing change than leaning in.

This slim book is a response to Sheryl Sandborg’s book Lean In. I had already seen Jennifer Dziura’s acid comment on Lean In:

Lean In is an absolutely joyless tutorial on how to give your entire life to a corporation while also having a husband and kids that are a lot of work. If you’re working that hard, there should at least be something rewarding about it.

which gave me a fair idea of its message. Dawn Foster’s response is political, taking apart the underlying assumptions and context.

That context is patriarchal capitalism, where most women are poor and exploited, and simply don’t have the opportunities to Lean In even if they wanted to. Just because a few women can manage to break through the glass ceiling and become rich and successful, doesn’t mean all women can, although it does provide a useful distraction. Any resulting “trickle-dowm feminism” is just as ineffective as “trickle-down economics”; highly successful women are more likely to stick with others of their class than of their gender. And, of course, those rich successful women are relying on the labour of poorer women to allow them to run their lives, by providing cleaning, child care, and so on.

Dawn Foster’s solution is to point to those who Lean Out: women who organise and lobby for decent wages and working conditions from the bottom up. And there are many examples.

A refreshing polemic.