Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.
Sandberg assumes that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?
If resistance to working harder is the problem, then it follows that work, in Sandberg’s book, is a solution. Work will save us; but, the reader may be asking, from what? By taking note of the forms of human activity that do not appear in Lean In, we see that what work will save us from is not-work: pleasure and other nonproductive pastimes. “Framing the issue as work-life balance—as if the two were diametrically opposed—almost ensures that work will lose out,” Sandberg writes. In response to the threat of work losing out, she goes on to outline how one transforms one’s life entirely into work. There is no not-work, or pleasure, in Lean In. Aside from the possibility of having better sex with one’s husband after he has assisted with household chores (work makes everything better, including sex!), Sandberg does not mention pleasure. Sandberg assumes instead that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?
Take Sandberg’s perspective on the family. A successful working mother on the Sandberg model awakes at 5:00 a.m. to answer emails before preparing kids for school, returns home for dinner with her kids (which, like her job, is a duty the mother has to be promptly on time for), and then gets back into her email. “Once he was down at night, I would jump back on my computer and continue my workday,” she writes, acknowledging the fact that, by Silicon Valley’s own hand, “technology has extended the weekday.”
At this point in the text, what could become a critique of the new economy’s round-the-clock work imperative becomes its opposite: resignation to work’s all-consuming nature. “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”
For someone with fewer family demands than Sandberg, freedom is depicted not as a pleasure but a problem to be resolved by getting a family. The single woman goes out to a bar goes not to have fun or be with friends (the main reason most women I know attend a bar), but to find a husband with whom to procreate. “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight…because going to a party is the only way I might meet someone and start a family!” Astonishingly for a book published in 2013, there are no self-identified lesbians, gay men, or even intentionally unmarried or child-free people in Lean In’s vision of the workplace. It’s not clear why Sandberg thinks that everyone should be in the business of getting a family, since the book argues that family gets in the way of work. But it seems that Sandberg can only imagine the dreaded “leaning back” as a product of family demands. Who would take a vacation voluntarily?