Former Google and Apple executive Ellen Petry Leanse


Former Google and Apple executive Ellen Petry Leanse

Can Rich Female Executives “Just” Stop Policing Women?

We are told to "lean in," to stop saying “just,” to quit apologizing. But not all of us have that privilege. And maybe we shouldn’t be the ones changing anyway.

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Former Google and Apple executive Ellen Petry Leanse published an article in Business Insider last week about a disturbing trend she’s noticed among women in the workplace. Far more often than her male colleagues, Leanse’s female colleagues were qualifying their statements with “the J word.” “Just following up,” “just wondering,” “just wanted to check in on”—“just” was ubiquitous. “It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like,” Leanse wrote. “It was a ‘permission’ word, in a way—a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on the door before asking, ‘Can I get something I need from you?’” When Leanse put a moratorium on the word in her office, she was thrilled with the effect: “We felt a change in our communication—even our confidence. We didn’t dilute our messages with a word that weakened them.” The piece ends with her benediction, Leanse’s call to other women to reap the benefits of following her lead. “Maybe now that you’ve read this,” she said, “you’ll heighten your awareness of that word and find clearer, more confident ways of making your ideas known. In other words, help take the ‘J count’ down.”

According to Leanse, overusing “the J word” makes women seem childish and apologetic. Just is a “child” word, one that puts any conversation partner “into the ‘parent’ position, [thus] granting them more authority and control.” While I agree with Leanse that women are more likely than men to behave in ways that seem childish or apologetic, I am exhausted with rich female executives policing women for the problems of patriarchy. As Tracy Moore pointed out in her piece for Jezebel, women are socialized from birth to seem unobtrusive and attentive to the needs of others. “It makes plenty of sense,” Moore wrote, “when you think about how women live with the ever-present background fear of being perceived as a bitch or a nag, so the only way to prove we are, in fact, correctly socialized … is by apologizing for every possible thing we might ever do, want, think, ask need, feel.” This is the sort of context Leanse ignores when she peppily pushes women to just become more assertive. She made feminism a project of self-improvement in which individual women are held responsible for continuing their correct socialization while also recognizing and ridding themselves of any of its potentially annoying inflections.

Sheryl Sandberg, another wealthy executive with a background in tech, has launched a second career teaching women to achieve feminism by living like her. Lean In, the book, like Lean In, the foundation, encourages women to consider how they might be hindering their own career advancement. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” wrote Sandberg. She implores women to embrace long hours, to never take vacations, to seamlessly balance never-not-working with whatever parts of life might come up. Work will make you free, she says, as if it were women’s laziness that has kept them from correcting power and income imbalances.

Wealthy and well taken care of by capitalism, female executives like Leanse and Sandberg willfully confuse what is good for business with what is good for women. Businesses benefit when employees speak the same assertive and undiluted language, just as businesses benefit when workers happily stay long hours. But to pretend that women benefit from those things is to ignore about a thousand structural realities. Sandberg says for women to lean in to power without considering the feasibility of doing so as a woman who is not White, college-educated, married, insured, and assured childcare. She also lacks the imagination to consider that “feminism” could be about anything other than replicating male power structures. Whenever I read about women like Sandberg or Leanse, I realize that my truest feminism is about women not having to work so hard.

Much has been written about the specific failures of Lean In to address concerns like those I noted above. Leanse’s piece interested me because its concerns were specific, and linguistic, and in some ways aligned with my own. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s most recent work of auto-theory, Nelson moves around in motherhood and queerness and whether/how language works. She grapples with the impulse to qualify and attempts to exorcise it. “Afraid of assertion,” she wrote. “Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language … [Roland] Barthes found the exit to this merry-go-round by reminding himself that ‘it is the language that is assertive, not he.’ It is absurd, Barthes said, to try to flee from language’s assertive nature by ‘add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble.’” The terms of Nelson’s consideration are different, but her conclusion is strikingly like Leanse’s. (I hold Maggie Nelson like she holds Roland Barthes and feel very willing to adopt her positions as my own.) There are good reasons to write less meekly.

I also find much to celebrate in the woman who chooses not to apologize for herself. This world has done nothing to deserve Robyn Rihanna Fenty, a.k.a., Rihanna, but we are daily blessed by her refusal to give one single fuck, as we can see in her “Bitch Better Have My Money” video. It is statistically impossible that Rihanna has ever used “just” as a qualifier. The difference between what Nelson does by thinking about what she wants from her own writing or what Rihanna does by existing, and what Leanse does by proselytizing about “the J word,” is that Nelson and Rihanna made their decisions fully aware of the contexts of their own lives. Nelson knows that, by removing qualifiers, she risks making totalizing statements. Rihanna knew what (White) people would say about the “BBHMM” video, in which she kidnaps her accountant’s wife. Nelson and Rihanna make unqualified work anyway. They know their own lives; they’ve done what works for them.

I don’t think Leanse has put much thought into the contexts that might compel a woman to keep “the J word.” As far as I can tell, Leanse is a White woman near the top of her white-collar career. She and other women of her station have achieved power; it is safe for them to ignore that there can be real and violent consequences when women adopt “empowered” behaviors without the reinforcement of existing power structures. Look at the threats that follow women who express their opinions online. Look at how those threats compound when the woman speaking is trans, queer, or of color. (I won’t link to specific instances because I don’t want to direct further violence their way.) If we want to keep our focus specifically on the office, consider how this culture treats perceived anger in black women. Consider why a black woman might keep “just,” just to avoid that perception. Qualifiers and frequent apologies are verbal postures available to women who, out of desire or necessity, wish to seem acquiescent. Sometimes they are survival skills; other times they just make life more convenient. Either way, campaigning for their cessation is reckless. Trash the structures that make this world uninhabitable for women, not the mechanisms they use to survive in it.   


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