lean out 2

Feministing Reads: Elissa Shevinsky’s Lean Out

What difference would it make to our tech industry if its underrepresented members leaned in or leaned out? After reading the recent collection of essays on the topic from OR Books, I wasn’t so sure.

In Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-up Culture, programmer and start-up founder Elissa Shevinsky collects the voices of 19 women and genderqueer people from the “trenches” of Silicon Valley. (Ed.Lean Out includes an essay from Feministing columnist Katherine Cross.) The title suggests a much-needed antidote to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s feminism-as-corporate-assimilation, which made waves when it “launched” in 2013.

Collection editor and #LADYBOSS Shevinsky takes a different approach than Sandberg in her introduction, asking whether the technology industry even “deserves women and minorities.” But although she describes the work as “manifesto,” the essays end up varying widely in quality, radical message, level of editing, and scope. Among incisive critiques of nerd sociology and important stories of micro and macro aggressions, there are also far too many unnecessarily long resumes and capitalist self-help manuals in the book. Reflective of the divergent strains of thinking within the industry, the book’s contributors’ responses to Shevinsky’s question likewise differ. Often those with more to gain suggest we lean in; others advise we lean out; some, confusingly, suggest we do both.

OR Book Lean Out Many of the book’s contributors recount how sexism seemed like a problem small enough to ignore until it slowly but often suddenly appeared as an intolerable, insurmountable, incommensurable system to live, breathe, and work under. Shevinsky tells the story of her own feminist awakening at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Hackathon. She had been in the industry for over a decade until an app called Titstare (what it sounds like: you literally take photos of “yourself staring at tits”) definitively opened her eyes to the industry’s unending parade of toxic masculinity. “I’m now of the opinion that pervasive bro-ness is enough of a distraction to be worth dismantling,” she tweeted from the event in 2012.

Since that fateful day, Shevinsky has been writing about the unfortunate “pattern recognition” dominating Silicon Valley human resources: the way hiring young white male geeks has becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for HR departments evaluating who is cut out to do this type of work. In her second essay in the collection, “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem”, Shevinsky rightly diagnoses that “the problem isn’t women, it’s tech culture.” Discussions of gender equity in workplaces often circle around a little myth called the pipeline problem, which tells us “the reason there aren’t more women working at big tech companies is because there simply aren’t enough talented, interested, and skilled women.” The pipeline, Shevinsky explains, is an all too convenient and common narrative that gets tech companies off the hook from their terrible hiring practices and problematic work environments.

But what’s the solution? Reform or revolution? Lean in and get hired or lean out and avoid (IRL and virtual) titstares? It’s not an easy answer for any of the book’s contributors. Games designer anna anthropy summarizes the stakes of the fears that anyone who just as bravely leans out inevitably has to contend with: “What if that’s just conceding space to them, when we should be maintaining visibility at all costs? What if things are getting better—just very slowly? What if it’s killing you?”

And if progress is so slow, is it worth jumping in at all?  “I worry,” Shevinsky admits, “about training and encouraging women to join an industry that is failing so many of the women that are already here.”

For instance, Squinky, a genderqueer indie game designer, is “already here.” Squinky explains the ways in which cultural fit kept them outside of both representations in games, and also jobs in traditional gaming studios. They are visible for their stellar games but still constantly made invisible by mainstream gaming and their representations. “Making games is easy,” they write in their speech of the same name reprinted in the collection, “Belonging is hard.”

Krys Freeman’s essay on being “2nd generation in tech” tells the story of adopting the same work-twice-as-hard ethic as her mother, making them two of the few black women technologists in the business world. Despite the generation separating them, both have faced the same question: “How the hell did you get here?” The only difference, Freeman writes, is that now the question is tacit. Microaggressions “and the things [colleagues] did say” spoke volumes, Freeman explains. She sees how leaning in might be tempting for some, but like antrhophy she wonders what her seat at the table might cost her: “This seat comes at what cost? Does that seat require our silence or deference, in exchange for validation of ‘culture fit’? And is it worth the cost to present an idea, only to have it dismissed at first, and then later validated when the idea is presented by someone else?”

In “The Other Side of Diversity,” Erica Joy decides the cost of her seat was too high. “I feel like I’ve lost my entire cultural identity in effort to be part of the culture I’ve spent the majority of the last decade in.” What’s needed, she explains, isn’t more people to fit the culture, but a complete cultural reprogramming.

For those who do push against brogramming culture from within, the stigma of becoming a “liability”—someone who companies do not want to hear because of their aura of scandal—runs deep. Entrepreneur Katy Levinson bravely writes about her fear of speaking out against “wildly out of control” sexism across the industry, which so often includes sexual assault. Levinson’s recommendation for protecting whistleblowers and anti-sexist activists of all stripes by building systems of justice with teeth is essential. But the collection does not provide a concrete vision of what that might look like.

Although the collection’s ruling title may be (slightly) different than Sandberg’s and its advertised message more radical, the message running beneath some of its essays is mostly the same as hers. Gender equality, in these more dispiriting essays, became a struggle to have the same cake, and let more people eat it, too. To what extent can a transformational feminism attentive to broad labor struggles emerge from within the most productive, rapacious, hungry sector of our economy?

I’m not optimistic about the answer, given that many of the essays criticized the workplace’s profound and disturbing gender inequality but accepted without comment its particularly novel perpetuation of income inequality. Some of the book’s contributors not only accept without apology the status-quo of a cutthroat capitalist culture, but outright celebrate it. “Maximizing Google’s shareholder value is fine (hey, making money is the American way)” Shevinsky writes in one of the more innocuous examples. Still I left the book wondering whether Shevinskly’s calls for “professionalism” and “appropriate behavior,” at conferences would ever be strong enough tools to dismantle Master Zuck’s house.

Erica Swallow’s essay, prompted by her experiences as an intern and only woman at a VC firm, ends, “While I’m not sure what the future holds for me, I’m drawn toward making sure women are better represented at the table in the worlds of entrepreneurship and venture capital.” Right now only six percent of VC partners are women: the table is no doubt dismally small. But it’s unclear if those committed to solving this gender gap within VC are committed to building power across broader feminist struggles, say, with those performing less glamorous labor than financial speculation. What kind of workers–including within tech, Lean Out’s stated scope–are excluded from even getting to choose to lean out, or in? Are the networks, visibility, and mentoring suggested by some of the collection’s essayists real solutions or problems?

So often the advice in these essays leans toward building an individual’s given career, ignoring our collective organizing in favor of promoting the valley’s twist on personal success stories. Dom Deguzman advises that “the point is that there is no one way up, but there is still a way to the top.” Yet I wished there had been more emphasis on getting rid of the top altogether. For instance, an essay by entrepreneur Melanie Moore, “Build a business, not an exit strategy,” reads like numerology, listing shareholder values and start up capital with zero mention of gender, inequality, feminism, sexism. “Solve your own problem,” Melanie Moore advises. A Sandberg 2.0, she preaches how to succeed in business without really trying to think about gender at all.

Designer Ash Huang writes an essay on choosing her own path in the tech industry, while acknowledging the manifold approaches to doing so. “Change is not a single series of boxes we check off and forget,” she writes, as though addressing the many contributors who close their essays with MBA bullet points. “It is a constant battle from a thousand fronts fought by a thousand different types.” Perhaps in the end these different types are the value of the collection’s nineteen disruptive, disturbing and divergent voices. Lean Out is not a roadmap for revolution, and it does not always endorse reforms, but it is an honest portrait of a network of gender-oppressed people leaning every which way.


Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

Read more about

Join the Conversation