Wednesday, March 27, 2013

WMW: Leaning In

Have you been hearing all the buzz about Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead? This new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has been getting a lot of press and apparently sold 140,000 in its first week.

I haven't read it, but I'm following the media discussion with great interest. Sandberg's premise seems to be that women need to stop trying so hard to be "nice" in the workplace and stop worrying about the common double-standard by which an assertive man is considered a strong, confident leader, but an assertive woman is considered a bitch. Then again, a lot of her advice, apparently, advocates walking a fine line: be assertive, while being "eternally pleasant." (There go my chances :0)

Lauren Hansen of gives this helpful synopsis (followed by a good run down of the most well-reasoned arguments flying around about the book):
Sandberg posits that due to forces both internal and external, women make small decisions throughout their career that impede their progress. Whether it's planning ahead for a family, feeling obligated to think of others before themselves, or shying away from their triumphs, women's degenerative choices over time have resulted in the gender as a whole earning only 77 cents for every dollar men make, and holding only "a meager twenty-one" of the Fortune 500 CEO positions.
A lot of the criticism of Sandberg's book seems to be that it is "elitist," seeming to take for granted opportunities and luxuries that have enabled her to get to the top. I've read some insightful responses, including one from a Latina perspective, and one about how Sandberg has a very 1970s approach to gender differences.

The conversation around Lean In has also brought more attention to the question of whether women who "opt out" of the workplace to stay home are doing so because they really want to or because—for whatever reason—it is hard for women to succeed in business. Or as Lisa Belkin, author of a well known article from ten years ago called "The Opt-Out Revolution," says, now rethinking her 2003 assertion: "most women who leave the workforce are more pushed than pulled."

I read all this with great interest, having recently halfway-opted-out myself to become a freelance editor and writer. I'm still working quite a bit, but with a lot more flexibility than before. And I'm loving it. I keep saying it's the "best decision I ever made." I control my own schedule, work on a wider variety of projects, and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from gaining new clients. I am more available to my kids and (when we have them) foster kids, making breakfast in the mornings and having dinner started when they get home, not to mention sick and snow days. Our marriage is stronger and happier, presumably because I am more relaxed and we have more time for just the two of us, having lunch on his day off, working in a coffeeshop together on his sermon writing days, etc. And—a plus for an introverted pastor's wife—I am less resentful and drained by all the time we spend at church because I have had plenty of "alone time" while I'm working.

My decision to leave my old job was motivated by a desire for more flexibility and work/home balance, but my new situation is so fulfilling, it's sure hard to think of it as a Plan B. So, according to Belkin, was I "pulled" home by the desire to better care for my family, or was I "pushed" by the corporate environment?

Belkin says,  
"Had their workplaces been ones that adapted to a world in which workers no longer have other halves (read: wives) focusing on home so that they can focus on the job, and where technology could be used to free employees from their desks physically rather than tethering them metaphorically, and where the "ideal worker" was understood to have priorities outside of the office — in other words, if they'd had a third path — they might well have taken it."
I'd probably call the path I'm taking a "third path," but I know that's not possible for everyone. I wonder if people are really making a false dichotomy between "leaning in" and "opting out." When I first heard about Lean In, I thought, "That's a book I would have eaten up a year ago," but I figured it no longer applied to me. I stopped climbing the corporate ladder when I opted to work from home, right? My husband quickly disagreed. "Being your own boss sure sounds like leaning in to me. And you've got the corner office—overlooking the neighborhood pool, no less!"

I'd like to say "leaning in" can mean actively pursuing a career life that works for you, whatever that means; but it's not my term to redefine. All I know is that the combination of push and pull that leads a woman to make a change does not necessarily have to derail her professional success and fulfillment.

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