by Micaela Healy
April 2018

The question that both constructs and consumes Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: For Graduates (2014), her not-self-help, pseudo-feminist-manifesto work, is how women can succeed in a systemically sexist corporate world without having eliminated the cultural and social barriers to female empowerment. There is still much to be done for women in social power struggles, but this is not what concerns Sandberg. She accepts the imperfect corporate world, and argues that the way we change it is through infiltration, working its systems to someday rewrite them. Sandberg’s book instructs how to pry success from a system meant to stereotype and discount women by teaching them when to ‘lean in’ to assumptions about gender for benefit and when to subvert them to avoid being harmed. She would describe the work as various bits of advice, but I identify a pattern to it, and refer to this planned behavior as ‘tactical submission.’

Before one can examine the efficacy of this behavior, one must determine what Sandberg identifies as stereotypical femininity. She makes it clear that women are naturally meek and insecure, and must overcome their deep-seated desire to relegate themselves to a minor position. Sandberg expresses that women must learn to “sit at the table”, but she also understands the “insecurities that [draw] them to the side of the room” (p 34, 35). Women are deeply communal beings, required to seem emotionally available and supportive to their coworkers,  depending on mentor relationships and on their partners; Sandberg believes that “the single most important decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is” (p. 82, 138). This partner is typically male, as the heterosexuality of the ‘everywoman’ Sandberg constructs is presumed constantly. Women wait for “Prince Charming”, and are advised to “date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys” before settling down (p. 84, 154). The two sole mentions of homosexuality are one brief reference to a statistic insinuating their more evenly divided domestic labor and one daring remark about “finding the right guy — or gal” (Sandberg 2014, p. 145, 146). Sandberg asserts that women are naturally mothering, with biological clocks that “demand we have children”, but “overcome biology with consciousness in other areas” (p. 18, 136); they are emotional, vulnerable, volatile, and will often be drawn to tears as a means of “expressing [their] truth” but are still non-threatening (p. 113). Sandberg has a very precise definition of womanhood which is coded both white and heterosexual. This is significant, as only this specific type of womanhood may enact tactical submission. To emulate what comprises the image of black femininity, for example, would not play to the standardized idea of ‘woman,’ and would be less opportune for tactical submission. To be clear, Sandberg is not aware that her image of women is so white, though she recognizes briefly that women of color do often struggle much more than white women before dispensing entirely with the notion. What can only be assumed, then, is that women of color are expected to emulate white femininity as described in Lean In in order to employ tactical submission and benefit.

Having identified Sandberg’s conception of womanhood, we must now examine her observations of women’s behavior: what must change and what must be used. Women have, as she previously asserts, some powerful compulsion toward communal and kindness-driven behaviors. With women, kindness is simply expected. “She’s communal, right? She wants to help others” (Sandberg 2014, p. 56). Even though women take on much uncompensated work in this way, they generally believe they deserve rewards which will come to them if they simply work hard enough. Sandberg discourages this reliance on recognition, criticizing “Tiara Syndrome,” the belief in a meritocracy in which all work is rewarded fairly, and “tiaras are doled out to the deserving” (p. 80). Lean In is bedazzled with statistics on the behaviors of women as any tiara ought to be decked in flashy gems, but, just as with those decorative stones, the sourcing of these statistics matters. Many of them attempt to describe why women hold themselves back, or why they deceive themselves into underperforming. The significance of these statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, though; Sandberg repeatedly cites studies conducted by firms as if these are not spearheaded by those in power — namely men. In the words of de la Barre: “All that has been written about women by men should be suspect, for the men are at once judge and party to the lawsuit” (as cited in de Beauvoir, 2006, p. 118-119). This criticism noted, however, we’ll progress under the generous assumption that these studies hold little or no bias to reach our next point.

Some behaviors associated with Sandberg’s notion of femininity are discouraged and others are praised by her, depending on their utility. Meekness, for example, is undesirable because it causes one to be ‘out of the game,’ so to speak — more a spectator than a participant in or advocate for their careers. Others, such as communal attitudes, can make women into very productive and desirable workers. “Whenever possible, women should substitute ‘we’ for ‘I’” because “showing concern for the common good, even as they negotiate for themselves, will strengthen their position” (Sandberg 2014, p. 59, 61).   In each case, Sandberg examines individual traits of femininity and their role in female submission as separable and disposable components of the image of womanhood. They can be naturally womanly traits, but women must not necessarily embody them. The decision to play into societal beliefs with communal speech but to assert oneself over the assumed meekness — Coleman calls this to be “relentlessly pleasant” (as cited in Sandberg, 2014) — is one way to enact tactical submission (p. 60). Whether Sandberg knows it or not, her book is in close discourse with Judith Butler’s theory of gender constructivism. “If one ‘is’ a woman,” she asserts, “that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive” (Butler 2006, p. 354). The identity of ‘woman’ is nebulous, inconsistent, and incomplete. Interrogating it and drawing from it the components which are most beneficial is not entirely irrational.

In a less flattering comparison, Sandberg’s thinking also seems to echo exactly the problematic thinking Kimberle Crenshaw warns against when discussing disadvantaged identities, the pervasive “but for” rhetoric (Crenshaw 1989, p. 151). ‘If only this one trait did not exist, then this underprivileged person would be the same as everyone else!’ Crenshaw explains how identities are compartmentalized in this way so as to believe that one factor is all that prohibits equal treatment. Sandberg’s approach of selective adherence to feminine archetypes embodies this compartmentalization of identity to the letter. The learned submission of women is a trait distinguishable from the female identity, and but for this hindrance, they would be treated as equals in the corporate world. So to manipulate it as an individual component for benefit is quite logical from this standpoint.

Women should tactically submit to the systemic inequality of business because “getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power” (Sandberg 2014, p. 10). She sees that there is a societal problem at play, but asserts that playing the game by sexist rules will produce a less sexist business world if it gets women into leadership positions. In this game, believing that adherence to these sexist attitudes might be right or wrong is irrelevant, and one should only consider if adherence will advance or stifle their career. Here Butler would object, though, that “juridical power inevitably ‘produces’ what it claims merely to represent” (Butler 2006, p. 354). The greater society will continue to perpetuate stereotypes of female submission which necessarily influence business operations and the climate in which they occur, regardless of the gender of CEOs. In brief: the business world does not exist in a vacuum. Our very language, according to theorists like Butler, is coded in terms of power hierarchies. One could easily despair that to try to uproot these embedded sexist apparatuses may not be possible from within the system.

Interestingly enough, though, this gloomy stance is not the one that Butler takes, and there is some evidence of support for the type of ‘battle’ which Sandberg intends to wage on the boys’ club in big business. Sandberg recognizes that it is somewhat of a “paradox” to try and “change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations. I know it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desired end” (p. 61). Whether this tactic is in fact an effective means to an end is questionable, but the argument for subversion from within the system of power is given much positive consideration by Butler. “If the rules of governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility … then it is only within the practices of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible” (Butler 2006, p. 359). Perhaps, then, there is viability to the tactical submission that Sandberg suggests. Slight subversions paired with placating concessions to stereotype might be a theoretically sound method to attempt to debilitate a sexist environment.

Tactical submission is not to be taken as inherently effective simply because it is theoretically consistent with other understandings of successful subversion. As one 2017 study by data scientists at Harvard (aptly enough, entitled: “A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work”) sought to prove, the difference in women’s treatment in the workplace might not even originate from any distinctly ‘female’ behaviors, but simply from the obstinate view that their male coworkers have of them as being different. “Women had the same number of contacts as men,” the study reported, “they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. … Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated” (Turban, Stephen, & Waber 2017, p. 3). And here we arrive at the potentially greatest flaw of the argument for tactical submission, so succinctly phrased: “Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior” (Turban, Stephen, & Waber 2017, p. 3).

Sexism is a belief system founded inherently upon the certainty that women are inferior to (or at the very least, different from) men. A woman seeking to ‘tactically submit’ to this idea will only affirm the difference, and to ‘tactically avoid’ femininity and behave more like a man when opportune will only perpetuate the notion that masculinity is inherently powerful. To Sandberg, and to many others inspired by Lean In, the appeal of believing that modifications in one’s own behavior can alter the systemically perpetuated impression of women is great, but the argument for Sandberg’s tactical submission simply does not address sexism’s illogical ideology. Much more research on the concept of tactical submission would be required to make any sort of claim as to its efficacy.

Further research is also recommended on the account of a possible connection between the concepts of ‘tactical submission’ and ‘ambivalent sexism,’ which was not within the scope of this paper to examine but which might provide evidence for the broader implications—and existence, for that matter—of a pattern identifiable as tactical submission. While no previous theoretical description of the behavior I term tactical submission has been found, it may be that this behavior is the specifically female-enacted facet of the larger concept of ambivalent sexism. Ambivalent sexism is the performance of actions or acceptance of attitudes that are based in sexist beliefs but which seem apparently to ‘benefit’ women, such as the common assertion that doors should be held for women, or that women should not be made to physically exert themselves for fear that they may be hurt. Tactical submission, as it has been here defined, might be considered the flip side of this coin, so to speak. Ambivalent sexism is typically enacted by men to ‘benefit’ women, where tactical submission could be seen as women acting on or accepting sexist beliefs to ‘benefit’ themselves. Further exploration of this connection could yield promising results for future discussions of feminist theory, and help contextualize the mentality on which tactical submission is founded. It is unlikely, however, that this research will prove any strong defense of tactical submission as a valid method for subverting sexism, and it may prove the case that the strategy becomes even further invalidated and the cognitive dissonance, more overt even that it is now.

The above analysis of Sandberg’s technique has perhaps given more credit than is due if it insinuates that she knowingly created this pattern, as she gives no indication of understanding these choices as anything but individual and compartmentalized struggles. It would be wrong to say, then, that she proposes this theory, but one might more accurately say she is a devote practicer and promoter of the skill. Great care has been taken to understand the motivations of this approach to sexist work environments, and even its viability in the eyes of established feminist theory has been allowed the chance to prove itself. Tactical submission fails, though, to address sexism as an ideology and not a reaction to feminine behavior, and therefore becomes largely inutile, not even to mention the harmful stereotypes it perpetuates and how it may in this way only feed into further prejudiced ideology. All examined, tactical submission is a fascinating behavioral pattern but hardly a likely candidate to end workplace sexism.

Works Cited

Butler, J. (2006). From gender trouble. In Theorizing feminisms: a reader (E. Hackett & S. Haslanger, Eds.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc., USA.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140:139-167.

De Beauvoir, S. (2006). The Second sex. In Theorizing feminisms: a reader (E. Hackett & S.Haslanger, Eds.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc., USA.

Sandberg, S., & Scovell, N. (2014). Lean in: for graduates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Turban, S., Freeman, L., & Waber, B. (2017, October 26). We Asked Men and Women to Wear Sensors at Work. They Act the Same but Are Treated Very Differently. Retrieved from


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