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