Being Perceived as Leaning Out

The term “priority” means something that is more important than another. Two things literally can’t have the same priority.

So, when your boss calls a last-minute team meeting for 4pm that afternoon but you’re supposed to leave work at 4pm to pick up your son and take him to his first t-ball game (and you marked it on your calendar as “out of office” weeks ago), what do you do?

1. Prioritize Family over Career

Tell your boss you have a conflict at that time and you’ll catch up with her tomorrow on what you missed.

You’ve done the best thing for your son but you’ll probably be perceived as a little less committed to your career than those co-workers who prioritize the meeting.

2. Prioritize Career over Family

Make arrangements for someone else to take your son to his game. You’ll have to make it up to him later.

You’ll be perceived by your boss as being committed to your career, but your son will be disappointed.

Over time, the effects of multiple such decisions add up – a plateaued career for being seen as not committed or a damaged son who feels his mom values her career more than him.

Which decision you make obviously depends on many different factors and might change from one instance to another. Neither is right or wrong. But it will directly impact how people perceive you.

I’m a “#1” person and even though I never regret putting my family before my career, I know I’m often viewed by others as not “leaning in” to my career.

However, if I choose #2 and prioritize Career over Family, it could have a very real effect on my son.

Between these two outcomes, I’ll take #1 any day. And I think my reasoning comes down to this:

Nothing I ever do professionally could be more important than raising a human being.

It’s hard to care about some report that needs formatting when my 8 month old is running a fever. Or feel passionate about a new product launch when I’m focused on launching a decent person into society!

So I’d rather go home on a Friday afternoon and have dinner with my family than go out to the office happy hour so I can “network” with the VPs, improving my chances for that next promotion. I’ll forego logging into my email at 9pm just to send some emails that really could wait until the morning, and instead I’ll have a conversation with my husband while the house is quiet. Sorry Sheryl Sandberg but if they don’t recognize my value and potential based on the awesome work I put in from 8am to 5pm, then that’s their loss.

Don’t get me wrong – I would quickly make other arrangements for the t-ball game if there was a truly critical need at work: an issue on a major project or with a customer. But I’m talking about how we prioritize and treat the “extras” like the Friday afternoon happy hour or the “optional” meetings and projects. “Lean In” asserts that, in order to reach the top we must make an effort to go after these kinds of “extras”. But at what cost? Coincidentally, these extras usually conflict with personal priorities, forcing you to prove your commitment to your career by prioritizing it over your family, health, hobbies, balance… life.

The reason more men reach the top ranks than women is because the higher you go in your career, the more frowned upon it is to prioritize your family – or any other personal commitment or hobby – over your career. And women tend to choose their family over career more than men because it’s more socially acceptable. So voila! Fewer women at the top, even if they are just as capable and passionate about their careers as men.

Perhaps as social norms change and we all start prioritizing family and personal life over work “extras”, the perception of what it means to be a committed professional will evolve.

Of course, priorities can change depending on where you are in life. Fifteen years from now when my kids are (hopefully) out of the house, I might LOVE going to Friday happy hours!!

But for now, I will continue to schedule meetings around my son’s t-ball game, skip the happy hours so I can be home to have dinner with my family, and block off my calendar every Friday morning so I can go to my favorite Core Strengthening class. If it costs me a promotion or is viewed as “Leaning Out”, so be it.


How about you? Do you tend toward #1 or #2? How do you feel when you do one or the other? What are the trade-offs?

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