Lean Against: Building an Alternative to Lean In Within Tech

The ultimate message of Lean In ideology is transparent in the name itself: Stay in the machine. Work for the machine. Appease the machine.

It all started here. Sandberg’s ascent to power. The re-imagining of her professional and personal life as an emblem of feminist achievement. Her story, the foundation of a new media empire.

“Lean In” ideology cannot be interpreted without historical insight into mainstream feminism - a lens which reveals a mere re-branding of decades-old, elitist, white, upper class “faux feminism.” But it also cannot be interpreted without considering the political landscape of the tech industry, from which Sandberg has emerged into world-wide fame and wildly disproportionate fortune.

Tech. An industry notorious for its largely homogeneous workforce, ruled by rampant sexism and racism, built on an invisible “under class” of tech workers offered no claim to the privileges of that title. It is an industry where 56% of women will leave over time, over twice the rate of men; where representation of women is actually declining, and where women are regularly abused, harassed, sexually assaulted and even raped in professional contexts. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley offers no moral framework besides one of elitist and narcissistic “liberalism,” pumping out one new social application after another.

Sandberg, shown on a judging panel. Creative Commons photo via techcrunch50-2008

Lean In perfectly reflects the propaganda of the ruling class within technology towards the advancement of people it systemically oppresses. The expectation that marginalized groups take responsibility for their oppression and seek individual achievement as a remedy to it; conform to the sexist and racist ideals of the industry to succeed; focus on personal advancement over systemic change; devote their lives to working for a system that refuses to treat them equally… wrapped in the rhetoric of a false meritocracy, this is the agenda of straight white men in technology, and it is not a feminist one.

In turn, Lean In - as a book and as an ideology - is embraced by that same ruling class which shaped it. It is now being used to inculcate a new generation of women through Lean In circles, held proximally to prestigious computer science programs graduating many of tech’s next class. Sandberg’s brand of “feminism” has been embraced warmly by organizations dedicated to women in tech, including, (to the author’s grave disappointment), the Anita Borg Institute. And perhaps as payment for her loyalty, Sandberg herself has become one of two or three women deemed worthy of keynote appearances at tech’s most prestigious events.

The Lean In book website, showing the cover of the book. The website for the Lean In book.

Lean In as A Prescription

Lean In is more than a book, a TED talk. In many ways, it represents a framework and a prescription for addressing systemic inequalities in the corporate world - one that is ultimately doomed to fail, that has been deliberately designed to fail.

bell hooks’ essay Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In provides critical insight on its failings. Lean In declines to provide either a structural analysis that accurately reflects the systemic oppression, sexism, racism, cissexism and homophobia that oppress underrepresented and marginalized groups in tech; or a remedial approach that results in the destruction of those systems.

Sandberg, shown posing with Bill Gates and other Facebook employees. Sandberg, posing with Bill Gates and Facebook employees at World Economic Forum in 2011. Creative Commons photo via scobleizer

Notably, Sandberg’s career vessel is a company whose very product and economy is built on the extension of patriarchal governance. Facebook is perhaps the most lucrative exercise in gendered surveillance in history, creating an unprecedented virtualization of the male gaze, as Kate Losse has written about in Model View Culture. Mirroring the template of Sandberg’s own career, Lean In seeks only to marginally expand the types of people who can benefit from wildly disproportionate wealth and control of international companies. It is but a slight departure from the current norms - of privileged, white, straight, able-bodied cis men willing to shit on the rest of the world - to also envelop privileged, white, straight, able-bodied cis women willing to shit on the rest of world… and perhaps particularly, willing to shit on other women.

This pursuit of a fractional, exceptional “success” wrapped up in book deals and media appearances has loaned a new vigor to the anti-intellectual dullery of mainstream feminism, which has spent the past few years producing vapid HBO shows about self-involved white girls and fighting intersectionality on social media. Sandberg’s book, her TED talk, her quaint Circles are steadily transformed into a Lean In Industrial Complex with the tacit approval of Facebook itself - lurking, as it does. Watching.

And Lean In as a movement continues to undermine all womens’ progress for the sake of some women: hiring for unpaid interns, focusing on schools of extraordinary privilege, participating in projects that co-opt the work of women of color, and promoting Congresswomen with incredibly problematic voting histories.

Doomed to Fail

To many in the technology industry, Lean In was immediately familiar - it has always been a part of Silicon Valley's philosophy, even if only now distilled into a book, a palatable and international media campaign. Like most of the tech industry's dearly held positions on marginalized and underrepresented groups, it is designed to fail as a working strategy for structural changes to entrenched inequalities:

  • The movement’s target audience and central focus is privileged white, cis women, excluding the many, many other groups that are marginalized and underrepresented in tech. By focusing on only this group and, in fact, often co-opting, appropriating, marginalizing, and seeking to destroy the movement of other groups, the Lean In “solution” acts to prevent the only thing that could in fact rupture the system: broad-based, intersectional action and solidarity.
  • Success is defined as the disproportionate achievement of the individual, through attaining money and power as the primary means of “transformative” engagement with patriarchal systems. This reinforces the importance of the largely doomed capitalist “rat race” and siphons energy into individual dominance rather than into collective action.
  • Lean In puts the onus onto marginalized groups to achieve and become successful in white, straight, male-dominated systems, specifically coercing women and other marginalized groups to participate in those systems rather than work to dismantle them.
  • It ignores sexism, racism, gendered and racial violence and other structural oppressions, thus erasing those oppressions and creating an ahistorical, anti-intellectual construction of the problem.

As hooks states, “...we all need to remember that visionary feminist goal which is not of a women running the world as is, but a women doing our part to change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone...”

Against Lean In: Alternate Strategies Against Oppression Within Technology

In 2014, the existing mainstream tech establishment is on a massive campaign to steal, negate and benefit from the activism of diverse communities in tech. This year will be a critical year, one in which Lean In ideology seizes the opportunity of economic progress in tech - the rising bubble - to forward an agenda of greed, capitalism, personal achievement and disproportionate wealth.

It’s not just Lean In and Facebook: the mainstream tech industry is on a full-fledged attempt to coopt, minimize, sanitize and absorb the increased visibility and radical organization around diversity in tech. Already in 2014, we have seen VCs like Paul Graham and Dave McClure and glorified conference organizers like Jason Calacanis all independently claiming to be - and being heralded as - champions of diversity in tech. Graham wants accolades for LESS THAN PROPORTIONAL investment in women in tech. Campaigns like that of McClure’s 500 Startups offer relatively small sums of money to organizations where women have a mere 10% ownership in a business, and paint the imperialistic expansion of VC into other countries as investment in diverse communities.

But alternative frameworks, strategies and approaches against oppression - not just binary gender oppression but the myriad, intersecting systems that prevent a truly diverse technology industry and community - already exist. Already in use by activists, feminists, anti-racists, radical and independent organizations, critics and technologists, these tactics offer a practice of resistance, change, activism in tech:

Refuse to Sanitize The Problem Statement

Lean In ideology commits massive erasure in its sanitization of, and refusal to acknowledge, patriarchal systems as the primary obstacle to women’s achievement in the corporate world. In discussing the advancement of women in tech, it is loathe to so much as mention sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism and gendered violence. Like many corporate-sponsored diversity initiatives in tech, it imagines a false and magical world in which there are no underlying motivations for the systematic exclusion of minorities in tech, no white supremacist patriarchy; merely a world where women haven’t been confident enough to succeed.

To make true progress, our efforts must refuse to construct a harmless straw-men of endemic discrimination: we must name and address rampant physical and sexual violence and harassment in tech, institutionalized racism, systemic barriers to achievement, overt and implicit bias, and the people and systems who benefit from them.

Locate Responsibility in the White Male Patriarchal Establishment

Rather than locating responsibility for addressing systemic problems in marginalized communities, we must hold the straight white male establishment responsible. The straight white male establishment is responsible for maintaining its dominance and propagation at every stage of the career lifestyle - from preferencing white men in the hiring system, to funding white men to start companies, to creating environments of harassment, misogyny, racism and violence that drive diverse individuals from the industry. Marginalized communities in tech MUST NOT carry the burden for individual success when it is granted so freely to the ruling class. To do otherwise promotes a dangerous exceptionalism that ultimately cannot remedy the system.

Encourage New Conceptions of Leaderships

Tech is an industry whose white male dominance, and its attendant pathological overconfidence, risk-taking, arrogance and entitlement has resulted in multiple, widespread economic crises within the industry, a profound failure to address significant social problems with technology, and a “power-law” driven mentality that benefits the 1% while destroying the 99%.

The tech industry’s destruction of local communities through gentrification, separatism and abuse of eviction law are of note on their own; they are also representative of an overall attitude of the devouring entitlement and imperialism that permeates tech. Instead of encouraging women to model this behavior to succeed in corporations, what new formations of leadership can we develop? What forms of leadership, success and ambition can we develop as marginalized groups in technology that are anti-patriarchy, instead of being formed in its image?

Build Solidarity Across Groups

Promoting privileged, cis white women is “safe” to the system. This group, already aligned with white supremacy, can be relied upon to not seek solidarity with other groups. It is a group that has repeatedly shown itself willing to make certain tradeoffs relative to their own advancement: actively harming the advancement of other groups in exchange for marginal increased access to patriarchy’s wealth and power.

To achieve broad, transformative change within tech, we need to build solidarity across marginalized groups. While it is absolutely critical to create identity-focused groups where people who share a certain identity or position in the political system can be safe, create systems and technology relevant to themselves, and organize for their goals, it is also in the political interests of diverse groups within tech to partner with each other against the status quo. Together, we can marshall more resources, access, knowledge, influence. Of course, this requires facing and dismantling the systems that keep us apart - an essential form of work in itself.

Support Independent Small Tech and Small Businesses Outside of the Existing Corporate Structure

We cannot just hold up success within multinational corporations as the main nexus of change. White male-dominated, patriarchal organizations are known to thoroughly corrupt equality movements and co-opt the success of marginalized groups in ways that threaten the progress of others. Sandberg herself can be interpreted through this lens, used both by a white, male-dominated company and by a white, male-dominated mainstream media to promote an uncritical, ineffective and bigoted form of “feminism” for mass consumption. For this reason, we must seek structures and definitions of success that can occur outside of these mainstream organizations, not just within them - and as a community, find ways to support alternate structures.

Relatedly, corporate-sponsored feminism in tech, and diversity efforts, have a long history of erasing the work of independent organizations that do the most critical and dangerous work in this space; funneling money back into the broken system rather than the many independent organizations struggling for funding; and creating a non-critical, non-dangerous conception of what feminism and diversity truly means. For this reason, in 2014 it is particularly important that we center, fund, and support independent organization and activism that is not motivated by PR, branding and a sanitized version of activism in tech.

Leaning Out, And Leaning Against

The ultimate message of Lean In ideology is transparent in the name itself: Stay in the machine. Work for the machine. Appease the machine.

While we may be coerced via various systems to remain in tech, those who are able, and choose, to leave tech - or work against its fundamental systems - should not be treated as moral failures of the Lean In ideology. We should not be asking ourselves to re-commit to the very systems eroding our lives, esteem, activism, humanity, safety and fulfillment. People who are choosing to leave dominant paths - to start their own businesses, join non-profits, pursue life-work where they feel safer and more fulfilled, reform their relationship and participation in tech, and work against its harmful structures - are not only well within their rights to self-determination... they also offer a vision of radical departure, of reclamations of technology, and new approaches to life and to work that provide more hope than Lean Out... in leaning against.