It’s been five years since the debut of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and along with it, the birth of what has arguably become the modern-day women’s movement.
Since the book’s release, women have been linking arms across the world, encouraging each other to achieve their greatest potential. Thanks to numerous educational resources and a Lean In ecosystem of Meetups, conferences, podcasts and even t-shirts, thousands have found the confidence and skills they were lacking, to help them achieve professional success. For these women, we are sincerely moved, and we proudly support them on their journey.
But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who are fortunate to have a respectable education, a decent career, plus plenty of support, confidence and skills but have no ambitions to climb the corporate ladder? What about the millions of us who rather remain in middle management and conserve our mental, physical, and emotional energy to be devoted to our family, hobbies and other priorities?
Before Lean In, being content with your career and pursuing other life endeavors was a personal choice; after Lean In, it’s become an insult to feminism. The goal of the original women’s movement wasn’t to get more women into the boardroom. It was to gain freedom for women: the freedom to vote, to participate in politics, and yes, to seek professional advancement in the manner of our choosing. But we’ve lost sight of the fact that each of our career paths are a unique choice. Instead, the Lean In movement (and now mainstream corporate America in general) has become preoccupied with persuading women to capitalize on our professional opportunity at all costs. It overwhelms us with incessant pressure to meet our greatest possible potential; it sends us the less-than-subtle message that if we don’t become CEO or run for President then we’re disappointing Gloria Steinem herself.The message that millions of us hear daily as we sit in our cubicles earning a decent living is that our achieving anything less than professional greatness makes us a failure.
Yes, it’s a somewhat self-imposed pressure. We want to honor those who fought for us to get here. We feel we owe it to those who aren’t as fortunate. The encouragement to “be anything you want to be!” was imparted a little too well by our Baby Boomer parents. Our over-exposure to social media has us constantly competing with each other and posting the most glamorous versions of ourselves—even if those versions mask our true mediocrity. Perhaps we’re even afraid that if we don’t utilize the equal opportunity we have today, we’ll lose it: like we must continuously prove ourselves otherwise The Men will put us back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.
Admittedly, Sandberg couldn’t have anticipated the Lean In movement would develop such a hard edge and I doubt she condones the “with us or against us” mentality Lean In has taken on. The Lean In message alone is not a bad one, but its incessant delivery makes it very one-sided. It is also founded on one critical and inaccurate assumption: it assumes that every educated career woman wants to accomplish as much as she can professionally, no matter the cost. This assumption is untrue and even dangerous. While more of us are entering the boardroom, more of us are also silently suffering from over-working, misplaced priorities, unhealthy self-image and anxiety.
It’s this downside of “leaning in” that the glass-ceiling-breakers of the world somehow fail to mention during their interview for the Vogue spread. No one ever speaks of this daunting entrance criteria into the upper echelons of Corporate America that alienates us and has us second guessing our desire to “Lean In”. What’s worse is these messages are often delivered by famous, billionaire businesswomen who are largely removed from the challenges faced by the typical, modern career woman. As a result, the rest of us feel obligated to live up to an unattainable standard of what “success” is, or one that may be attainable but not something we actually want to attain.
Even when female public figures do speak about the difficulties of balancing high achievement with personal pursuits, they almost always gloss over the sacrifice. Marisa Meyer, former CEO of Yahoo!, is the poster woman for putting her career before her family. She famously took less than one month of maternity leave in 2012 and again in 2015. Meyer downplays the sacrifice, saying she finds other ways to spend time with her children. She also attempts to quiet her critics, saying she should not be the standard that all working women are held to.
But if not her, then who? In contrast to Meyer, when former PepsiCo CEO Indira Nooyi spoke on a panel at the 2016 Women in the World Summit, she told the heartbreaking story of her five-year-old daughter sending her a note that said, “I love you, but I’d love you more if you came home.” Instead of immediately claiming she has no regrets or arguing that she should be the exception not the rule, what Nooyi did on that panel wasdifferent and refreshing. She said when she found this letter she decided she would always keep it as a reminder of “what she lost”. Nooyi’s bravery in speaking openly about the tradeoffs that come with a high-powered career are necessary. We can’t keep pretending that such professional success doesn’t come at a high price.
The popular explanation for why women are underrepresented in corporate leadership is that there’s a figurative ceiling of glass keeping us from getting there, made up of high childcare costs, unequal pay, sexual harassment, or a lack of confidence. This may have been the unfortunate reality for our mothers and grandmothers, but for most Gen-X and Gen-Y women, our struggle is a different one: We are fortunate to have such great confidence, support and opportunity that we actually feel obligated to achieve as much as we possibly can. We don’t face external forces keeping us from going as far as we want to go. Instead, we face an internal struggle because we don’t want to go as far as we’re expected to.
Our generation of women are underrepresented at the upper levels of the corporate ladder, not because of some glass ceiling keeping us out, but because we are choosing to lean out of leadership. We hear stories like Nooyi’s and we know we don’t want to experience receiving such a note from our child. We’re shown every day that being a leader in today’s business world means you’re expected to sacrifice your family, your health, your hobbies, your sleep, your sanity… all to prove how committed you are to your job. It means checking email at midnight. It means missing your daughter’s t-ball game because of a last-minute work meeting. It means having to put your job before anything else in your life.
Women (and increasingly more men) are no longer willing to make these sacrifices that corporate America has come to require in order for us to be considered “successful”. Professional opportunity as we know it is no longer attractive to today’s potential leaders – at least not to those who want a complete, intrinsically-fulfilling life. A well-balanced person takes one look at what is expected at the upper ranks and says “thanks but no thanks.”
If we really want to support women in their advancement, it’s time for the modern women’s movement to course correct. It needs to remember that its very foundation was built upon the goal of representing all women, not just the super-achievers. It needs to treat those who work a 40-hour work week as the norm, instead of as disappointments. It should recognize that working parents can be just as productive on flexible schedules as those who pride themselves on sitting at their desk well into the evening hours. Instead of just obligating us all to one version of “success,” a modern women’s movement needs to alter the definition to make it more accessible, more human. Gloria Steinem herself said “Don’t think about making women fit the world – think about making the world fit women.” We need to make a world that all women – not just high-achieving workaholics – can be proud to call their own.
But such a cultural shift will take time and practice. You can do your part by beginning to right-size your own life. Start by remembering you have a choice. You don’t have to climb the corporate ladder simply because you have the opportunity and the skills to do so or because some female executive with a fancy haircut tells you that you should. Skip the not-so-important work meeting and go instead to your daughter’s t-ball game. Work hard for eight hours a day then go home at 5pm and don’t feel pressured to log back in at midnight. Turn down that people-manager position if it will only add to your stress and harm your overall well-being. Don’t say “yes” to things that are offered to you or asked of you simply because you can accommodate them. Let your default answer be “no” and make “yes” something people must earn. If you have empty space on your list, leave it empty and just enjoy the quiet. In other words, you can choose to lean out.
And stop asking that worn-out question, “Is it possible to ‘have it all’?” Whether or not it’s possible is irrelevant. Instead, ask yourself, “Do I even want to have it all?” We have been convinced by the Lean In campaigns of the world that our answer must always be “yes”. But it’s time we stop and decide for ourselves. It’s time we stop living the life we feel obligated to live and start living the life we choose to live. Instead of trying to “have it all”, we need to strive to have just what we want, which may or may not include the kind of professional accomplishment we’ve been urged to pursue.
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