Sheryl Sandberg recently published a book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead that some have touted as a rebirth of the American feminist movement. Others, disagree.
As an African-American pediatrician, I find the idea that women need to lean in to institutional positions of leadership to exert influence, problematic. It ignores the impact girls and women of color, who often exist outside the established order, have in our world. If we are going to assume a new feminist decree, it can’t be follow men to power. In the age of globalization and social media, the table of ideas is wide and growing and includes anyone with the courage to speak their mind. The future of feminism must abandon the constraints of traditional hierarchies, validate positions of influence women already assume in their world, and recognize the power of partnerships across cultural and gender lines. We don’t need to lean in to established hegemony, we need to change the game.
Let me explain.
Women already have power. Comprising 51% of the population, women make or influence 85% of all purchasing decisions in the United States – that’s anything from buying cars and computers to purchasing healthcare. In sum, women generate $6 trillion dollars a year in consumer spending (that’s six times the 2012 federal deficit). With the struggling auto industry, surge in online technology, and new changes in healthcare, women are literally at the center of the markets that are defining the ways we live, move, communicate, and stay healthy, and their influence is growing. In the 31% of marriages where women work, women now out-earn their husbands and it is estimated that in the next decade, women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the United States.
And it’s not just women – girls are also out-performing their male counterparts in age appropriate activities like high school completion and college enrollment; a statistic that holds true despite the girl’s race/ethnicity. If education is the path to increasing earning potential, as the data suggests it is, girls are already on track to follow their predecessors as the primary wage earners and financial decision makers for their families and communities. And if the Girl Scouts are any example, the first cookie was sold in 1917 at a high school bake-sale and is now a $700 million empire, girls already wield power too.
When 1 in 11 women now own their own business and young women of color are progressing to new heights in higher education, it is time to use the power women already possess to create equity across society. And not just gender equity.
I think we need a new kind of feminism, the kind that is not just about women (gasp) and their individual success.
This kind of feminism recognizes that the plight of women to overcome the psychological and institutional barriers to self-actualization, is shared.
This kind of feminism embraces the issues of other marginalized populations, issues like institutional racism, immigration, gay marriage, and growing economic inequality and poverty in the US.
At its core, this kind of feminism is about authenticity and choice – the ability to be oneself (whatever that means) and choose and control one’s destiny, whether that be for control of one’s body, one’s career, or one’s position in society.
It is not about having “women [run] half of our countries and companies and men [run] half of our homes.” It is about building and sustaining institutional constructs where every individual, regardless of race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or gender, can choose, and work hard to obtain, the life they want, for themselves and their families.
Ultimately, it is not about leaning in, it is about reaching out. In the age of open access technology and social networks, empowered consumers are increasingly defining national conversations that can inform and change the political and cultural agenda – building spheres of influence that are no longer beholden to traditional hierarchies of leadership. Today, collective action matters; and closing the gender gap requires more than a singular vision of what individual women “should” be doing. It is time to harness the power that girls and women already possess to create a new feminist decree: Equality, for all!