Leaning in or out?

During my last visit to my mom’s, we stopped by a local library to donate some of her books.  They also sell used books and my picked me up a copy of Lean In–Sheryl Sandberg’s contribution to the “having it all” debate.  My feminist perspective is largely influenced by my mom and since this book has caused quite a stir, she thought we could both read it and discuss it together. Having read all the media accounts of the book, I was not interested.

You see, I’m not sure women need to lean in. I think both men and women would be well-served by a little leaning out. I mean, I truly enjoy my job and the intellectual fulfillment it brings. But why can’t we just be happy with what we have rather than always striving for the top? Imagine if Sandberg didn’t “lean in” and only ended up an executive at Google rather than COO of Facebook. Or consider that another prominent writer in this debate couldn’t have it all as a high level aide to Hillary Clinton in the State Department; instead she had to, uh, settle as a tenured professor at Princeton. Her version of settling is success to most others. I don’t see how something less than reaching the ultimate pinnacle of success means you are sacrificing your career for your family.

And that’s not even getting into the argument that blaming women for not leaning in completely ignores all the factors that put up major barriers to women reaching those high posts.

So that was my frame of mind when my mom handed me the book. And then I read it. It is too simple to say I ate a bunch of crow, but her argument is more nuanced than the media accounts portrayed. I guess that’s always true about the media. It wasn’t the best book by any means. Still, I found three main things that really hit home.

One–what would you do if you weren’t afraid? I think this advice can apply to everyone no matter where they fall in the work outside the home, work inside the home, stay at home, child free spectrum of choices. The thing about these choices is that it seems lots of women find themselves in one of them without actually feeling like it’s a choice. This isn’t exactly what Sandberg meant, but this advice could apply equally well to a lot of decisions. Maybe you feel you have to work outside the home because you are scared of trying to live on one income. Maybe you have a great business idea but are afraid to take that risk. Maybe you want to retire early but are worried about how your far your investments will stretch. Too often we hold ourselves back because we are afraid of what might come.

So lean in. Or lean out. Heck, lean sideways if you want. But leans towards what you would do if you could do anything.

Two–don’t leave before you leave. The idea here is that even before women have kids, they start making decisions that reduce or limit their career options with the expectation that sometime in the future that decision would interfere with a family. So we might choose a career path that is supposed to be more family friendly. Or we don’t put ourselves out there for a promotion because we want to start a family. But after several years of infertility, I can see how short sighted this perspective is. If I had put myself on the “mommy track” when we first started trying to have a baby, I would have sacrificed 5 years before I was even a mother. Growing our family through adoption further emphasizes the difficulty of leaving before you leave. Just last week, I was talking myself out of leading this potential new project because it would require a lot of work next May. And what if I was on parental leave then with a new baby? We’ve really just begun the wait for our second child and already I’m turning down opportunities because of some potential that may never actually materialize.

There are so many unknowns when it comes to family building. When it will happen, how you will feel when it does happen. Let’s wait until the conflicts are already here before figuring out how to resolve it.

Three–act like you belong here. Sandberg describes how she sees lots of young women (and did this herself) choosing a seat on the outside of a table rather than sit down at the table. But if we’re not at the table, we are sending a strong message that we don’t belong and our voice doesn’t need to be heard. That’s the surest way to ensure that your ideas are not heard or that someone else takes credit for them. Recently I was at a conference and my morning session happened to have an extremely small crowd. As in 8 people. For a room that could fit 25. The room was organized in rows but with such a small crowd, some of us started rearranging it into a small circle. When we were done, two young, female graduate students took seats outside this circle. Since I’m now a Lean In guru, I encouraged them to join the main circle, but they refused. These women had some really interesting work to share, but insisted on sitting behind some of us. If we don’t act like we belong at the table, no one else will either. This plays itself out in other ways where women always defer to others or put themselves last. My grandmother, for example, used to always insist that she preferred to eat her dinner standing at the counter while the rest of us sat around the table. Whether it’s the kitchen table or the conference room table, take your seat and know that you deserve to be there.

I still don’t agree with everything Sandberg has to say. And I certainly don’t think we need to see an elite executive as the only vision of success in life. But I’ve come to appreciate some of what she has to say, even as I apply it in somewhat different ways. Whether it is embracing your career, embracing a minimalist lifestyle, or embracing your role in your family, do what you are afraid of doing and act like you deserve to be there.

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