Leaning out: An Emergent Practice

June 1, 2021 Issue No. 5

6/24 6:32:58 UTC

As we embark on our practice of leaning out, we ground ourselves in the movement's literature as the foundation of our innovation.

The Ideological Timeline of Leaning Out

The earliest instantiation of a lean-out ideology came from bell hooks while Sheryl Sandberg was still on her book tour. Sandberg had set the world on fire with Lean In. Still, hooks challenged us to consider how Sandberg used “feminist rhetoric as a front to cover [a] commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Since 2013, considerable ink has been spilled assessing the “lean in movement,” but here we create an ideological timeline of books charting an alternative.

The first to answer the call from hooks — true to our declared affiliation in newsletter #1— were the weirdos and the radicals. The critique started on the left and with Elissa Shevinsky, an infosec entrepreneur and feminist. In 2015, she rallied a cabal of technologists and activists to voice their dissonance in Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture. That same year, Dawn Foster, a UK-based writer for Jacobin, leveled a critique that lean-in neatly exempts patriarchy, capitalism, and business from any responsibility for changing the position of women in contemporary culture in Lean Out Lean Out 🖕🏼.

2019 saw Marissa Orr's centrist, corporatist publication of Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace. A dispatch from the belly of the beast — she relates her first-hand experience with girl gangs reigning terror at Facebook and narcissistic overlords at Google as a single mom trying to find success in her fifteen-year career. Still squarely in the corporate realm, but further to the right with its slightly religious overtones, Monica Pierce's 2020 Leaning Out: An Alternative Perspective for the Modern Corporate Woman helps women re-evaluate their personal and professional priorities, such that they can ultimately feel reassured in prioritizing family over work.

In a synthesis that greatly interests the Early Majority, Tara Henley's utopian urbanist Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life dropped at the end of the before times (i.e., March 2020) and revealed that leaning in had come at the expense of our own wellbeing. However, our most important advancement of the lean-out ideology arrived just this year in Koa Bank's critique of the elitist and exclusionary nature of lean-in feminism in White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind.

These writings presage the dawning realization that the pandemic has ushered in a dramatic reversal— erasing 30 years of women's progress in the workplace. Jessica Valenti rages appropriately that “American Moms Are Being Gaslit.” But could it actually be that we have been going backward this whole time, and Sheryl's entire argument was a ruse? That it only served to legitimize technopoly, coopt and immiserate women while defanging feminism? It all depends on what we do next. The following themes from the literature guide us.

The Literature of Leaning Out

Theme 1: Reject Exclusion

Lean in reduced feminism to a self-empowerment strategy — a way to get things. Rising to the top requires a monomaniacal devotion to work, which in turn requires leaning on others. Koa's genealogy reveals a consistent pattern of white women selling out women of color to get theirs throughout history.

When it comes to selling, self-improvement has always been a winner, and lean in feminism neatly lends itself to the marketing strategy of companies and brands. While we reject this commercialization of feminism, we do intend to build a successful business — one that doesn't deprive us of what Audre Lorde calls “the erotic power of our work.” The structural critique pushes us to invent new forms of non-exploitative capitalism grounded in intersectionality and the truth that: “Empowerment isn't something you buy. It's the feeling that comes from challenging power.”

Effecting change means embracing all marginalized genders and placing women on a spectrum of those genders. Feminism must embrace cis women, trans women, trans men, nonbinary people, gender-variant people — everyone who, in different ways, is marginalized by systems of oppression. Or as a kid we know recently put it:

Theme 2: Speak Out

Shevinsky's 2015 collection helps us understand why so few women spoke out about how corporate tech had failed them before Susan Fowler: they weren't seen as whistleblowers

[E]very single person who has ever complained about an act of sexism loudly enough for the public to notice, [worries] that they will be seen as liabilities for the rest of their career. . . When someone tries to discredit a whistleblower, ask yourself — what could the whistleblower's motive possibly be? They're knowingly ruining their own lives. However, we don't call anybody who talks about sexism in tech a whistleblower. Even their staunchest allies don't call them that. We aren't that generous with words.

Theme 3: Mediocrity Won't Save You

If Lean In marked the rise of corporate “1% feminism,” then both Orr and Pierce fought to maintain their economic position by valiantly and cleverly pursuing the path of mediocrity at work. Unsurprisingly the competitive culture of tech would not allow it.  While male-dominated technical functions have made space for the “individual contributor” or the path to promotion without having to manage people or play politics — a la the “distinguished engineer/scientist” or the “principal designer”— our determined heroines of the less technical disciplines had no such option.

Having children shouldn't be deemed a luxury lifestyle choice, but seeing even the most economically privileged writers' experiences and the degree to which they struggled to maintain position indicates the contrary. In the end, economic sacrifice was required. This brings us to the problematic notion of opting out.

Theme 4: Leaning Out vs. Opting Out

It's easy to forget that Sandberg was a refreshing alternative to the oppressiveness of attachment parenting and the glamorization of opting out. Most mothers have always had to work to make ends meet, but the press fawned over elite women who did not in the late aughts. The opt-out narrative obfuscated how women were pushed out by the all-or-nothing workplace, which our corporate feminists (Pierce & Orr) aptly demonstrate.

Even more importantly, both narratives failed us in that they personalized what we now all understand to be a political problem.  Lean In especially encouraged us to internalize our own discrimination, leading us to blame ourselves for getting passed over for raises and promotions or “eased” out of or passed over for jobs.

A world that's built without women in the room is a world that's built for men. Leaning Out isn't about abdicating the workplace; it's about demanding the systemic change required for work to work.

Theme 5: Love is a Battlefield

What's the alternative to politicizing or personalizing our problems? Blaming dads! To the extent that the conflict over labor doesn't happen in the streets anymore, it happens at home. Constantly. Sure the statistics strongly indicate that men continue to shirk [women do 1/3 more housework and 2/3 more childcare], and men's behavior during the pandemic has been scandalous.

However, from Gen X onward, many fathers have wanted to be more involved in their children's lives, more supportive of their partners, not less. Let's be clear that if work doesn't work for women, it likely doesn't work for men. Why are we fighting each other when we both want the world to change?  

Theme 6: We Not Me

The end of lifestyle feminism doesn't mean that you don't get to live a better life; rather, it comes with an understanding that doing so is more about changing systems than our own behavior. Leaning out requires embracing a radical emancipatory politics that extends beyond the desires of a few to the needs of many.

Maybe we had to experience the failure of lean in to understand what we were really up against: that to have a stab at a life that can support us, the answer isn't to internalize the hatred society casts our way but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.

Rather than leaning in and trying to forge a path within structures that are so hostile to us, we are leaning out and refusing to play the game as it's been defined by others anymore. We're creating our own structures, playing our own game — one that will be better for all.

Erica Joy guided the way in her essay in Shevinsky's collection by describing the alienation of working in Silicon Valley before decamping to community and herself in the diversity of Oakland. And this is why we love Henley's book, despite its lack of structural analysis. For her, it's clear: change requires more than life hacks. The real solution to our collective condition of alienation, precarity, overwork, and societal polarization involves a fully reimagined ethos — leaning out of the individualism of contemporary culture and leaning into true community.