Lean Back, Please

Natasha Skoryk

Natasha Skoryk

by Natasha Skoryk

First off, I’d like to say that I read Lean In last year, and I liked it. I liked it so much that I took photos of certain paragraphs and messaged them to my best friend. I particularly loved the sections on not feeling the need to be ‘unemotional’ in a workplace environment, Sandberg’s telling women to stop expecting more senior females to mentor them purely on account of their shared gender and her trepidation about women setting unattainable standards of perfection for themselves, which then prohibit them from feeling successful. I did not find the book particularly revolutionary in how it dealt with gender issues. I didn’t really get a sense of it being any sort of concrete manifesto. I read Lean In as a memoir of a very successful career woman, whom I admire, and a self-empowerment book. And I felt pretty self-empowered by the end, so I recommended the book to others, because I figured it did what it set out to do pretty well.

But I was wrong. Because Lean In had actually set out to become a practical movement. Lean In, a book about one middle class white woman’s success in the corporate world and her (genuinely good) advice for others like her, is now being framed as seminal doctrine. Which is where my confusion starts. The book is all about self-empowerment, so I struggle to see how it can form the basis of a grassroots movement that seeks to bring about meaningful transformation. I struggle to see how personal advice about things women can do to better themselves in corporate environments can be institutionalised to bring about mass change. But apparently, there is now a Lean In Circle at the University of Cape Town, trying to do just that. I quite like that name, I fancy the idea of women seated around a table, leaning the fuck in and grabbing opportunities. I just don’t really see how this Lean In Circle is doing that.

Lean In at UCT has fringed my life – I have several friends involved. This is unsurprising – most of my friends, both male and female, self-identify as feminists. However, this week the organisation made its way onto my social media radar with ‘The Man Campaign’ that they have now implemented. The idea, I’ve been told, is to ensure men are not sidelined from the feminist movement. The idea, as I understand it, is to get men’s ‘buy in’ to support gender equality. And, well. I fundamentally disagree with the premises that led to those two ideas.

Men have never been sidelined from feminist discourse. Men have never been excluded from the conversation. In fact, men have been, and still are, shaping the conversation. Lawmakers continue to predominantly be men. Most of current female-centric media is being produced by men. This is a problem. This needs to change. While we undoubtedly need support from men, we don’t need the conversation focusing around how men view gender inequality. We need men listening to the conversation, and participating in it to a degree, but the conversation needs to be shaped by women. This is not a radical notion. The idea of allies to the oppressed is present in most equality movements – yet for some reason, the idea of ‘allies’ to feminists continues to appear problematic to a lot of people. For some reason, ‘allies’ to feminists are expected to ‘buy in’. They are allowed to purchase a part of our conversation, a part of our experience, in order to validate it to society at large. They are expected to own a part of the discourse for their ‘mothers, sisters, wives and daughters’.

The reduction of women to their relationships to men has already permeated ‘The Man Campaign’. The first image shown depicted a young man saying that women are the most powerful people in the world (this is a well-meaning lie, women are not the most powerful people, women continue to take up but a small percentage of leadership roles in both the public and civil sectors and there remains a pervasive pay gap between genders – all issues, interestingly, that Sandberg highlights in her book), and that he really loves and respects his mother. I have no problem with the latter claim, except where it ties into feminism.

Please, men. Stop being feminist for the exceptional women in your life. I don’t like the insinuation that because certain women are phenomenal, all women must be. I don’t like women being reduced to one homogenous group based on preconceived ideas of femininity gleaned from the other women in men’s lives – regardless of whether those ideas are positive or negative. This takes away women’s individualism and agency. Some women are horrible. I simply don’t love all women. I also don’t love all men. But I believe they must be treated equally, because I believe in fundamental human rights. And I know that women are currently oppressed, whereas men are not. Which is why I am a feminist and not broadly egalitarian.

Another thing that needs to stop is the idea that men ought to support feminism because they stand to benefit from gender equality. They do. Feminism supports stay-at-home fathers, paternal rights and men being sensitive and creative. Patriarchy is harmful for men and women alike, the gender binary is devastating for us all. If ‘The Man Campaign’ had focused on the ways men are harmed by patriarchy, I would have possibly resented it less. That is a worthwhile conversation. Still, let’s not focus our attention on the benefits to the oppressor. Men should be supporting feminism because they believe in principles of equality. Not for certain special women. Not for themselves. But for us all, as a society.

Honestly, I really don’t need men validating my feminism. ‘The Man Campaign’s’ insinuation that I do, that by having men talk about my issues they somehow gain credibility in broader society, is abhorrent to me. I want men supporting and engaging with feminist discourse. But no, I’d rather they not Lean In with us. Why? Because they’ve already been leaning in for centuries. Let’s have men lean back for once, and let women shape this one conversation.

_______

Natasha is a third year humanities student at the University of Cape Town. She is passionate about societal transformation, and is actively involved in student life, currently serving as Deputy Chair Internal of Ubunye. Ubunye is one of UCT’s development agencies, committed to meaningful change amongst the student population and the communities at large.

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3 thoughts on “Lean Back, Please

  1. Annica says:

    Jirrrrrrre. Am so tired of this bs. Well said, Natasha. Feminists faffing about men means they are taking their attention away from what should be the crucial focus of their attention: wimmin. Let the men who feel the need talk among themselves about why they support feminism.

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  2. furiouslydancing says:

    Hi Natasha

    I really enjoyed this piece and I must agree with a lot of what you say. At first I thought you were going to say, “exclude men entirely”, but I’m glad you didn’t. I agree, men need to be included, but only so far as they are listening and learning, not shaping the agenda. Men do need “empowerment”, but not the way we traditionally conceive of the word. Men need empowerment in the sense that their understanding of the struggles of women must be shaped by women themselves.

    I think the Lean In group at UCT simple has not formed a real understanding of what feminism is and what empowerment means. I found that I thought I knew a lot at varsity, simply because I was suddenly learning a whole lot. But the truth is, step into the world outside of university walls and you can truly see the struggles that women face. Empowering women in the workplace is a great goal, which I support, but getting women into the workplace in the first place seems to be the bigger struggle.

    I suggest you support their cause, but contribute too…surely your views should be considered if you think it will help!

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  3. Caitlin Spring says:

    Hi – I wrote a response on my blog:

    ‘Every so often my feminism comes under fire and I’m forced to critically evaluate my position on things. Recently I’ve been forced to conceptualize exactly what it is I want from men who want to be part of the feminist movement. I’ve begun to think about the degree to which I want male participation in feminist discourse. Is feminism a men and women’s issue? Is it both of their issue equally?’

    http://www.springtimeblog.squarespace.com/thoughts/2015/3/4/what-feminism-needs-from-men

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