THE BLOG
08/25/2014 08:10 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2014

Confidence Game: The Problem With 'Lean In'

Sheryl Sandberg, author of the best-selling book Lean In and CEO of Facebook, has now plunged into social media to market her self-improvement formula. Its website, LeanIn.org, is upbeat, encouraging, and, as many members say, "inspiring."

Its message is quite simple: Too many women lack confidence; to get ahead you should conquer your fear, "think less, act more," don't aim to please but aim for respect. Speak up. Dare to offer new ideas. Don't worry if they're shot down, just go back at it and offer new ones.

This advice rests on solid research. At least since the massive women's movement of the 1970s, feminist scholars have shown how women are socialized to worry about being disliked, appearing unattractive, outshining others, grabbing too much attention. In 1978 Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes published "The Impostor Syndrome," showing how professional women often believe that they don't really deserve their position, that they are "impostors" who could be shown up as incompetent at any moment. I teach a lot of female students and I am constantly repeating, "speak louder," assert your views bravely, don't lift your voice to a questioning tone after each comment, don't precede your statements with "I'm not sure but..." or "I'm probably off-base but...". So I'm convinced that confidence-building is vital for women.

But can you build that confidence merely by telling women to have more confidence? Reading the website reminded me of an old stand-up comic routine in which a neurotic man can't stop himself from continually shredding paper; he consults a psychiatrist, spills out his obsession, and at the end of the session, the psychiatrist's recommendation is, "don't shred paper."

There must be reasons that women lack confidence, no? One theory blames our lower supplies of testosterone, which may lead to less ambition, less competitiveness, less taste for confrontation. But that in itself is not a problem: you can be a confident cooperator, a confident alliance builder, a confident peace-maker. Most of the confidence gender gap results from what we learn. In my case, extremely supportive parents including a respected working mother still could not protect me from anxiety about being too bossy, too dominating, respected but not loved.

The confidence boost in my life came from the women's movement and the gender lessons it taught me--or rather, the lessons I learned together with millions of other women. And for the vast majority of women, that has been always true: a few women may have natural confidence (though Sandberg's success no doubt owes quite a bit to her mentor, Larry Summers, former Harvard President and Secretary of the Treasury, who propelled her career). For the other 99.9% of us, it has been the pressure of a feminist movement that challenged sexism and boosted our self regard.

Though there's nothing wrong with trying to build women's confidence one by one, there is a danger that it might be misleading. If the website makes you think that women can escape discrimination (LeanIn.org calls it "gender bias") as individuals, that's deceptive advertising.

What are the deceptions? Consider these for a few.
  • The number of high corporate positions is very few; those who get them are usually already rich, graduates of top universities, with powerful mentors.
  • Getting and keeping most high professional jobs doesn't depend on confidence but on long and expensive training.
  • The vast majority of women both working class and middle class work in jobs (for example, clerks, janitors, cashiers, social workers, teachers, professors) in which salaries and promotions are fixed and applied to groups, not individuals.
  • The main reason women don't give their all to their ambition -- working long hours and weekends, taking work home -- is that they lack services like affordable child care, flexible hours, sick leave. Unless they have house husbands or wives or, of course, money to pay live-in nannies and maids.

The website acknowledges that leaning-in is often counter-productive, because women get labeled as bitches; lots of people prefer women quiet and submissive. But the only remedy proposed is to grow a thick skin and let the slurs slide off. Instead you need a women's movement to change the overall notion of what "nice women" are like. (The slippage back into the slut-shaming that targets so many women today is a sign that the extreme conservatives are panicking about women's increased assertiveness.)

There are many other problems with LeanIn.org. It's supporting the myth that feminism is an upper-class concern. (Never was and isn't now.) It's supporting the free-market ideology that wants to destroy Social Security, the post office, public education, and health and safety regulation, with its mythology that success depends only on individual initiative. With that logic, and the false assumption that successful women got there by leaning in, it promotes the idea that the other 99.9 percent have only ourselves to blame for not being prosperous and glamorous. It blames women for not getting ahead and doesn't challenge men or the corporations who want to pay minimum wages with no benefits. The 38.4 million women working minimum-wage jobs already work as hard as they can. LeanIn.org is a confidence game.

For most women the way to get ahead is through powerful women's movements pressing for cultures and policies that respect and support women.

Linda Gordon is the co-author of Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Womens Movements.