When Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In in 2013, she effectively launched a template for the corporate feminist self-help book. The book which sold over 4.2 million copies worldwide, promised to dismantle “internal obstacles” preventing women from “acquiring power” in the workplace. Its goal was to galvanize women to take matters into their own hands by breaking the glass ceiling themselves.
Sophia Amoruso’s memoir-cum-girl power manifesto #GirlBoss followed soon after touting itself as a “Lean In for misfits” giving the former a more millennial-friendly ra-ra-you-go girl flavour. Like Sandberg, Amoruso’s book proposed a convenient solution to the barriers women faced in the crusade for the corner office. Instead of dismantling patriarchal power structures, women should just take it for themselves. With enough ambition, confidence and laser-focused discipline, the pursuit of corporate power was thus branded as its own form of feminist activism. With enough female executives and entrepreneurs, we can lift other women up from below.
These ideas were simple, seductive, and enticing and willfully sidestepped the series of disasters that marred the modern workplace. Increasingly unstable jobs and strained finances are contributing to the fact that no one wants to get married, the birth rate is the lowest it’s ever been and millennials are dying of loneliness as a result. They also overlook the fact that women have borne the brunt of economic collapse and the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor.
In her book, Sandberg even acknowledges that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet,” but stresses that “each subsequent chapter focuses on an adjustment or difference that we can make ourselves.” Why wait for society to rebuild itself when we can get started? “If you lean forward,” she said, “you will get yourself into a position where the organization you’re with values you a lot and is therefore willing to be more flexible. Or you’ll get promoted and then you’ll get paid more and you’ll be able to afford better child care.” In her widely circulated critique of Lean In, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi cautions readers: “If you were waiting for someone to lean in for child care legislation, keep holding your breath.”
Lean In and #Girlboss preached that all the solutions could be individual. Through sheer will and self-empowerment, decades of gender inequality could be reversed. For a while, this worked and the shiny veneer of the girl boss was inescapable with companies like Nasty Gal, Thinx, Away, The Wing and their respective founders as mascots keeping the dream alive. That is until Nasty Gal’s eventual bankruptcy in 2016 followed by allegations of constant turnover, discrimination and abusive management (the company denied the allegations.) A domino effect of downfalls soon followed. The Wing’s CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman’s resignation following allegations of poor management and discrimination against employees of colour. Thinx Underwear CEO Miki Agrawal who “dedicated” herself to “liberating women” resigned after being accused of sexual harassment by a former employee. Away’s co-founder Steph Korey stepped down following public backlash thanks to leaked documents showing Korey routinely intimidating employees in public Slack channels. Each of these companies claimed to foster new and inclusive spaces for women in the workplace.
As these stories surfaced, the Lean in/Girlboss veneer shattered and our resident girlbosses turned out to be just as complicit in workplace abuse harassment and discrimination as their male counterparts. It came as a shock to Lean in/Girlboss truthers that their business practice did not always align with the feminist values they preached.
But not all productivity books preached their message under the banner of feminism.
There’s been a long tradition of productivity books that preceded their feminist counterparts by focusing on increasing your output as a worker effectively by managing your time. Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, a manual for a highly optimized worker. Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt who argues that “true productivity is about doing more of what is in your desire zone and less of everything else.” The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma of which the central message is if you wake up at 5 AM you will get so much more done and become a better worker, parent and partner. The message is always the same: It’s on you to change. Optimize your productivity and pit your professional life against your personal one.
What happens then, when the girlbosses have fallen and individual career advancement didn’t miraculously solve structural inequalities? When you’ve bullet journaled, woke up at 5 AM, reached Inbox Zero and tracked your time till you burnt out?
You get another self-help book.
In 2019, the tune changed from hustle culture to burnout thanks to Anne Helen Petersen’s widely popular Buzz Feed article “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.” Petersen argues that burnout is a defining condition for the millennial generation, “born out of distrust in the institutions that have failed us, the unrealistic expectations of the modern workplace, and a sharp uptick in anxiety and hopelessness exacerbated by the constant pressure to ‘perform’ our lives online.”
With over 7 million readers, Petersen’s article signaled the end of the Lean In era and a slew of books were published in its wake. Working Hard, Hardly Working by Grace Beverley, You’re The Business by Anna Codrea-Rado, (WFH) Working From Home by Harriet Minter, How To Work Without Losing Your Mind by Cate Sevilla and Petersen’s own Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation. What these books do differently from their Lean In and Girlboss predecessors is take aim at hustle culture and the intrinsically capitalist archetypes idealized by Sandberg and Amoruso.
For once, it felt like we were finally addressing the pressures outlined by Petersen and working towards a solution. The tides felt like they were changing in favor of the worker’s rights. But a closer look takes us back to square one. In You’re The Business, Codrea-Rado says that we need to “learn how to rest properly” in order to achieve “better business results, happier clients and a healthier state of mind.” When speaking about “effective self-care”, Grace Beverley’s Working Hard, Hardly Working writes: “What I’m hoping to encourage is that you start to see self-care as productivity … We need to manage self-care as productivity so that it can be a tool, rather than an excuse.” Some might find comfort and helpful advice in these books, like Sevilla’s which encourages readers to decentralize the role of work in our lives by giving less energy to our jobs and employers. Yet none of these solutions escape the confines of our corporate organization or pursuit of self-advancement, they only aim to correct the individual within it.
The solutions proposed in the post-Lean In books continue to emphasize what we as individuals can do to lessen the pain of an uncompromising workplace. They rightfully critique neoliberalism, trickle-down feminism and corporate culture without disrupting the structure. Instead, they demonstrate our obsession with pointing at and parsing through the issue. Trying to identify the ways in which we can tweak our psyche to better accommodate our working conditions in the absence of reform and legislation. It’s all about productivity hacks, mindset changes, visualization and manifestation practices.
All of these proposed solutions are accessible enough to give the reader a form of denial that retrieves a modicum of control over their work. But “work under capitalism is arranged, must be arranged, in such a way that workers do not have control over their work,” argues Amelia Horgan in Lost in Work. Where corporate productivity books fail to address the fundamental issue, less commercial works examine a more radical way of replacing our current strategies with something different.
Horgan argues that common refrains pulled from commercial works like “you are not your work,” “your job is what you do not who you are,” and “you are not defined by your productivity” are futile attempts at coping with an environment intentionally designed to make you feel the opposite. They overemphasize the role of the individual: the burnt-out worker, the bad manager, and the unrelenting tasks, which she argues enables the very neoliberal and capitalist structure to be critiqued in the first place.
What radical writers like Horgan and others like Sarah Jaffe (Work Won’t Love You Back) propose instead is a movement away from the individual and toward the collective. Recent additions to the workforce like working from home, flexible paid time off and even “wellness days” aren’t enough to protect workers from the series of disasters that have followed in the wake of COVID-19. Mass layoffs, discriminative environments, lack of sick pay and affordable childcare pose daily threats to workers who have little to fight with. Despite recent phenomena like quiet-quitting and the Great Resignation that imply that millennials have bargaining power, Horgan writes, “you need your job much more than your job needs you.”
Corporate culture will always be obsessed with controlling the labour narrative by constantly defining and redefining itself. While you might glean some practical tips and advice, productivity books only repackage the problem in a new marketable edifice. For a while, millennial workers will be pacified by the validation of their experience, but the onus always remains on the worker to change and never the workforce. These books may give us new expressions of feminism and subcultures, some might even reanimate movements but at the end of the day, they have little to do with undoing these structures. We’ve self-helped ourselves into circles.