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Lean In? Heck, I’m Just Trying to Stand Up Straight! Why Sheryl Sandberg Misses the Mark About Women's Advancement

Updated on April 10, 2013

At the playground a few days ago, I was discussing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book with some fellow part-time working moms. One friend exclaimed, “Lean In? Heck, I’m just trying to stand up straight!”

Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” has sparked debate among women and men everywhere about working women, the “work-life” (“work-family”) balance, and what it means to be a feminist in this post-feminist world. On a basic level, Sandberg argues that women’s progress in corporate leadership has stalled, and that women should “lean in” to their careers, rather than stepping back as they often do right as their careers are­—or could be­—getting rolling.

While I want to embrace Sandberg’s seemingly feminist manifesto on how to improve women’s lot in the workplace, my response is much more conflicted. As most of us struggle to advance—or at least maintain—our careers, while still carrying much of the childcare and household burden, we are overstressed, rushed, torn, ambivalent, and just trying to keep up with the next diaper change (oh yeah, and that email from our boss).

Now, more than ever, women face the higher demands of combining work and family, with less support from spouses, who are working harder, and abysmal social policy that does not support families.

Instead of telling women to work harder, Sandberg should be using her position of influence to identify and push for strategies that can help families cope with the increasing pressures of dual income earners.

For example:

Companies can change work culture so that people don’t have to choose between work and family in order to succeed.

Let’s push for more reasonable work hours, increased paid vacation time and other time off, such as guaranteed paid leave when children are ill, and guarantee benefits for part-time workers. Companies could also offer subsidized on-site day care and after-school programming to improve the ability of women to pursue their careers.

Changes in social policy can support families.

Other countries do it, with positive results, including a greater proportion of women in the workforce and improved health outcomes for children and their parents. Let’s push tax incentives that support women and men working while they have young children. Like the rest of the industrialized world, let’s have guaranteed paid family leave that gets us through infants sleeping through the night, encourages breastfeeding (which improves infant health outcomes), and demonstrates that men have an equal share in child rearing (yes, that means leave for women AND men). Let’s work towards guaranteed access to quality, subsidized childcare and preschool options that help women go back to work with peace of mind that their children are safe and in enriching environments without breaking the bank.

Our culture and workplaces can support men to “lean in” to their families in a meaningful and engaged way.

Rather than forcing men to push aside their families for a fast track career path that requires full-time availability whether in the office, on the beach, or eating dinner with their families, let’s turn to sectors like consulting or academia for lessons in how to maximize worker efficiency. Clearly defining work goals and expected outputs from even the most senior level leaders can ensure that their performance is measured by reasonable achievements, rather than by their accessibility at all times of day and night. More engaged fathers would in expand possibilities for women, supporting them in their work both outside and inside the home.

How to Help Women Succeed

In a culture that supposedly supports “family values” we’ve severely missed the mark. Individual women simply working even harder may not produce the societal changes that Sandberg craves. On the contrary, more sweeping policy and social change is necessary if we hope to see increasing numbers of women succeeding in the workplace.


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    • Lizam1 profile image

      Lizam1 4 years ago from Victoria BC

      It is a sad fact that women in power are often not the best advocates for supporting family and or women moving forward. I am raising two teen girls solo. My priority is the girls and I have managed to raise them on a 3/4 time salary until they were at an age when full time work was an option. When we decide to have children, in my opinion, the children should come first and not be a shuffling act. Sacrifices have to be made - we can have it all, when we choose to make our family and children a priority - not keeping up with the Joneses. My employer and other employers has a responsibility to create a fair working environment for all. However it is my choice to have children and employers are not responsible for that choice. I do agree though that creating a more socially and family friendly governance would benefit everyone, including employers.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 4 years ago from MA

      Express10. It's true, many people are striving for the work/family balance, and only some have the luck to ever "make it." I do agree that women at the top should do more to help other women, and help make things easier for all women, no matter what their circumstances or choices re: work/family (for those lucky ones who can "choose" to work less than full time).

    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 4 years ago from East Coast

      There are millions (some would argue billions) of men and women who work very hard but never get ahead, never have the time they hope to have with their children or ill loved ones, and never seem to be truly happy with life. Many people work so much that they let family and other relationships disintegrate. I don't think it's fair of Sanberg or Marissa Mayer to knock a person that is trying to find a work/life balance.

      Let's not even start talking about the many men (and women) that refuse to help out around the house or perform other household duties such as finances. Many women are actually performing two or more times the work as their male counterparts in and out of the home. Women such as Sandberg and Mayer are a different breed and not very pleasant to work for, particularly if you put anything ahead of your career. Health, family, sanity be damned.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      I was interested to see this article, having just read one in Boston Review that mentioned this Lean in philosophy. I had no idea until I read that BR article that women in the USA do not tend to have the same opportunities in part-time work that we do in Europe. It is quite common here for people (men as well as women) to work part time in jobs that are at quite a high rank.

      I have always been mainly at home since my kids were born, for various reasons it worked best for us, but my sister worked part time until her children were teens and then went full-time in the same job. She did have to do some negotiation to get a job-share after her first baby, and had to move sideways, but remained on the same level and pay-scale. This was over 2o years ago and in the meantime job-share has become much more common in the UK. I have even known a few couples who shared one job. It's not perfect over here, but it does seem now we have a lot to be grateful about.

      I agree with your view that it would be good if women like Sandberg used their position to improve working conditions for all.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 4 years ago from MA

      Thanks Tillsontitan. I agree, we all too often ask people to change without considering what bigger factors (such as policy and culture) are holding them back. Thanks for sharing!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      Amen to that! When society changes (working mothers and fathers) society needs to change to accomodate them. Family values can no longer be pushed aside because of corporate greed and lack of caring. This is a great hub Laura and I'm sharing it to help spread the word.

      Voted up, useful, interesing and shared.

    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 4 years ago from MA

      Thanks for reading! Theophanes, I think that society has not caught up with the success of women in the workplace. We haven't quite figured out how to support the post-feminist shifts in working patterns that include women of all ages in the workforce. Pamela99, thanks for the support. While I don't agree with a lot of what Sandberg says, I am glad that she, and other women in positions of power, are bringing these issues to the national spotlight!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 4 years ago from United States

      I am no longer in the postion of having to make such choices, but I am glad you wrote this hub as I couldn't agree with you more. I love your suggestions. I worked most of the years while raising my children and it is not easy. I think this is a topic that needs to be talked about some more. Voted up and awesome.

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      I couldn't agree more. I appreciate Sandberg talking on the subject at all but I felt she missed a lot of points. It's not just about telling our girls they can be anything - its about changing he society so they can be anything. Since entering the job force woman have created more work for themselves as I see sooo many moms working and caring for their children almost 100% even though they're married. It's maddening. As you stated above sometimes the reason for this is a lack of support from the corporate structure and I agree... "family first" sounds nice when politicians say it but in practice they like to walk all over it.

      When I was young I decided to have a career only, not a family. My health took a turn in my teens and I was unable to even accomplish that much. I have no idea how women do it! But I admire those that can. They're super human.