The Problem With Self-Help Guides and the “Lean In” Phenomenon

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-help books lately. With my current situation of transitioning out of grad school and into the working world (at least for a year or two until I decide if I want to pursue a Ph.D. or not), I’ve contemplated frequently about my skill set and abilities. Like with most transitions, the path is not easy and having anxiety hasn’t been much help either. So I’ve found myself turning to the world of self-help books.

The ironic part about all of this has been that I’ve been a staunch opponent against self-help books for quite some time. It’s not that I have anything against people wanting to help their fellow persons boost their esteems in whatever aspect they seek help in. Rather, I’ve been an avid believer that self-help books are just motivated to: 1) take your money, and 2) guide you into what the author thinks is in your best interest. How would a self-help author know that I need to “lean in” in order to get farther in the business world? They don’t know me. They don’t know my life!

I recently read a Slate article that challenged this same notion of confidence-boosting self-help guides specifically for women. The Lean In nation that recent billionaire mogul Sheryl Sandberg has created has had a large majority of my female colleagues praising and citing her work. It gets to be a bit irritating in the sense that her work has been considered the pinnacle of women coming into a feminist consciousness by way of recognizing their worth at work. I, just like any other woman in the U.S. who is in the working and middle class, of course value my work and would love to get farther in my career, but the book neglects to include other aspects of the problematic structure that maintains women’s value in the workplace. bell hooks has an insightful piece about this very idea at the Feminist Wire.

But despite my unyielding stance against self-help books, I still find myself gravitating to them, especially when books like Lean In have garnered such a massive movement for women in the workplace, an area that I’m seeking entrance into at the professional level. Perhaps maybe I’m just missing the point?

This is the harmful platform that Lean In feeds on — women who are very much competent and intelligent to break barriers on their own in the workplace, but need a pseudo-feminist mantra like Lean In in order to affirm their stance. I’m making generalizations here, I acknowledge that, but I must stress the fact that simply banning words like “bossy” from a girl’s vocabulary isn’t going to change the culture of calling women bossy bitches (personally, I don’t mind being called this) in the workplace when they have the slightest bit of assertiveness. No, what I believe is going to transform the culture of the value of women in the workplace are things like equal pay for equal work (this should be a no-brainer at this point), better conditions for maternity leave, and dismantling the assumption that women aspire for specific jobs (see: majoring in the humanities versus the hard sciences) and therefore, just need to switch their career goals. Just a thought, but I doubt that women (or anyone for that matter) intentionally go into low paying jobs because they WANT to.

Watch the discussion below from The Reid Report on women and equal pay laws. The discussion touches on many aspects of why equal pay is necessary, but also brings in slightly opposing views such as why women aren’t in high paying jobs in the first place.

For me, as an aspiring academic, entrepreneur, and/or super woman, I’m also a person who grapples with a sense of insecurity due to anxiety issues, therefore I’m an easy target for self-help guides like Lean In. As long as I ban “bossy” from my vernacular and follow the guidelines for success per Sandberg’s advice, then I too will assume my rightful position at the top of the economic playing field and prove to the world that see, all you needed to do was to just be more confident in yourself! That’s all it took! Women, we as the weaker sex just need to be more assertive and you know, be like men. (See: Hell no.)

I don’t want to entirely throw out the ideas of being confident in the workplace and leadership development and so forth because those are important aspects too. But there needs to be more conversations in the world of the Lean In nation about what it will take for all women and marginalized populations to destroy the structure that still exists to oppress. Working within the current structure and being “successful” in it (depending on how you define success), doesn’t exactly equate to a win for women’s rights — if anything, it might push us back some steps.

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Luann

Feminist, Pinay, coffee lover, boba aficionado and pop culture enthusiast. Current graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dwelling in the rainy city of Portland, Oregon but always California dreaming. You can also read more of her articles at browngirldecolonized.com

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