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I was a Sheryl Sandberg superfan. Then her “Lean In” advice failed me.

The end of “Lean In” feminism, chronicled by a former evangelist.

Sheryl Sandberg testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence on the 2016 election in September 2018 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 2013, I was a Sheryl Sandberg superfan. When Sandberg’s book, Lean In, came out, I was a 29-year-old hard-charging New York social media strategist and editor. The manifesto felt like a cross between a playbook and a bible. I devoured its contents, and I decided to create my own Lean In Circle of women following a program created by Sandberg’s companion nonprofit, I documented the year-long experience at Slate and was even quoted in a later edition of the book, extolling the virtues of starting a circle.

Fast-forward to today, when Sheryl Sandberg has been in the news for several storms of criticisms related to how she handled Russian election meddling on Facebook, where she’s the chief operating officer. A May 2018 Bloomberg Businessweek piece points out that five years later, Lean In may have helped with some incremental advancements for individual women in corporate America, but it doesn’t seem to have moved the needle at all on big issues like overall pay equity.

This week, Michelle Obama declared in front of a stadium-size audience, “And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.” I found myself vigorously nodding in agreement with the former first lady. So what happened in the past five years to transform me from devotee to critic? Now seems like the perfect moment to go back and revisit my own experience with the Lean In movement.

First, the good. Five years ago, when Lean In came out, I was happy with some of my career accomplishments but was hungry for more. I was eager for advice on how to break into that next level of leadership in media and journalism. I was taken with Sandberg’s message, that women may be unconsciously holding themselves back from professional advancement and thought I could reap benefits from joining a circle. When I couldn’t easily find one, I leaned in and started my own.

When I look back at my Lean In circle, there were definitely benefits to our group of around seven. We were all in our late 20s and early 30s with a range of professional goals, such as wanting more leadership responsibility, deciding whether to apply to grad school, or exploring a job change. The point was to encourage each other, be a sounding board, and try to pick new skills by doing the exercises and watching the instructional videos provided by Lean In.

We followed the curriculum, which we accessed online, and met monthly in each other’s Brooklyn apartments for a year. Some of the formalized lessons Lean In provided felt cheesy and stilted, like going around the group to declare, “I’m leaning into this circle because ...” But the group stayed committed. About three months into forming our group, we learned that three of the seven women in our group had asked for raises, all inspired by the book or our meetings. Additionally, we had an eye-opening discussion where we noticed how much we all downplayed our own achievements in describing our accomplishments at work.

As I think about Sandberg’s feminist legacy, her true positive contributions came from using her platform to make it common knowledge that women are less likely to negotiate and more uncomfortable talking about our successes, and commonly suffer from impostor syndrome. I also think creating a supportive community for women through these “circles” is a worthy mission, one that rewarded us; around half of the group actually got raises before the end of our time together.

As I dig deeper, I realize our circle had some notable shortcomings that didn’t allow us to fully understand the limits of the Lean In message. While our group had some racial diversity and job industry diversity, we were all well-educated, white-collar New York City professionals, and none of us were mothers.

Many people criticized Sandberg’s message as elitist and out of touch when the book came out. But I didn’t personally bump up against the limitations of her message until something in my life changed dramatically: I became a mom. I now believe that Lean In promoted a completely unrealistic portrait of what working motherhood is like. I knew being a working mom would be tough, but in Sandberg’s cult of hard work and personal responsibility, I thought it would be nothing I couldn’t handle. I could just lean in, or, as Sandberg specifically advised for working women thinking about having a baby: “Don’t leave till you leave,” meaning you shouldn’t step back from work just because you anticipate becoming a mother.

I took her advice seriously in 2014 when I was offered a higher-profile, higher-paying, more demanding job where there would be no other parents on my team, even though I was trying to get pregnant at the time. I remember specifically thinking about Sandberg’s mantra as I left behind a place with a flexible work culture and tons of working parents for a much more traditional office where I’d be the only mom on my team. Being a trailblazer is what leaning in is all about, right? In the Sheryl Sandberg playbook, I had nothing to worry about.

But not only did my Lean In devotion not prepare me for the challenges I faced in the coming years as a new mom, its rose-colored doctrine also supplied me with plenty of damaging illusions.

My son was born in July 2015 with some serious but treatable health problems. His illness filled my earliest moments of motherhood with trauma and anxiety. But I was still back at my desk when my too-short maternity leave was up, because I was terrified that my colleagues would judge me as not committed to my job if I tried to take more time to be with my baby. I went on to lose that job shortly after returning from leave.

This turn of events shattered my self-confidence and led me to question my whole identity as a competent professional. In my darker moments, I was convinced everyone had this working mom thing figured out but me, that I was just personally a failure. I was no longer leaning into negotiations for plum positions of leadership. I felt like I was just scraping by for professional survival.

In the coming years, I started to turn my journalistic attention toward working mothers. It became clear to me that nobody has this whole working mom thing figured out, and it wasn’t because we weren’t leaning in enough. Sandberg, after her husband’s death, publicly admitted that she didn’t fully understand what single mothers go through or how hard it is to lean in when you feel overwhelmed at home. But I don’t still think she fully understands the depth of obstacles mothers face.

While sexual harassment and workplace malfeasance has been unearthed in the public consciousness in the past year like never before, in my own reporting, I’ve found that so much of women’s lack of advancement is due not to a failure to negotiate, or an abstract, generalized sexism, but specifically to motherhood bias.

A recent New York Times investigation into pregnancy discrimination called the problem an “epidemic.” In my New York Times op-ed “The Open Secret of Anti-Mom Bias at Work,” I detail the serious barriers mothers face in hiring and how they are judged more harshly than childless colleagues. For women who have children during the prime childbearing years of 25 to 35, their earnings never recover, and their salaries often drop precipitously after having a kid. All of this does serious, long-term damage to women’s economic prospects.

My feminist thinking about women and workplaces is now in pretty direct opposition to Sandberg’s Lean In message. I believe telling mothers to raise their hands and try harder in the open sea of hostility we face in the workplace is like handing a rubber ducky to someone hit by a tsunami. I think it also inadvertently encourages us to internalize our own discrimination, leading us to blame ourselves for getting passed over for raises, eased out of jobs, not getting called for job interviews, and being denied promotions.

I now believe the greatest lie of Lean In is its underlying message that most companies and bosses are ultimately benevolent, that hard work is rewarded, that if women shed the straitjacket of self-doubt, a meritocratic world awaits us. My own life, and my research and reporting, along with interacting with hundreds of mothers in the past two years, has convinced me this is untrue.

Today, I think my previous warm embrace of corporate feminism has allowed me to reject it more thoughtfully and try to seek out something different. My hard fall off the ledge of leaning in forced me to reinvent my career. I’ve left New York City and have permanently abandoned my old corporate ladder-climbing life. But I still have tons of ambitions. I’ve entered an exciting phase of being a journalist-entrepreneur. I’m much more interested in judging my own successes in terms of personal fulfillment and positive impact on the world, rather than a fancy title and a big salary.

We are now living in an age where mothers at the New York Times, Lyft, and Amazon have banded together to demand change from their leadership on better family leave policies for women employees, including, in Amazon’s case, its hourly warehouse workers. Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have just introduced a domestic worker’s bill of rights to Congress, which would finally provide an overlooked group of mostly women with much-needed federal workplace protections. Workers in the fast-food industry and at Google have organized walkouts to fight sexual harassment.

Irrespective of Sandberg’s standing in the court of public opinion, which has undoubtedly changed, the conversation is moving well past her brand of feminism. Women are realizing that looking out for each other is even more powerful than just looking out for ourselves.

Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the creator of a reported podcast called The Double Shift, about a new generation of working mothers, out in 2019. Find her on Twitter @kgeee.

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