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Lean In? Sure -- Been There, Done That -- Now What?


I started my first job before I'd reached double digits, working in the family business, doing jobs that ranged from mind-numbing to challenging. I started my first business at about age 12, offering private skating lessons at the local rink and later private swimming lessons in people's homes. I got top marks in school from elementary school all the way up to graduating second in my class in my MBA program, while also working part-time, volunteering, and being President of one of the campus clubs. I chose jobs, not based on the initial salary or job title, but based on the potential for personal and career growth. I raised my hand and offered to solve problems and take on challenges, even especially if it was something I didn't have any direct experience with.

I grabbed on to the sum of my immense privilege and my abilities and I leaned in. Hard.

From the time I started my career (i.e. first post-MBA full-time job) at 23 until the time my son was born when I was 29, I went after every opportunity. I sat at the table, I raised my hand, I said "yes, I can do that", and I spoke with authority (even when I felt insecure). Two years into my career, and six months into a new job in a new field, I told my boss that I thought the company needed a new Director and that I should be that Director. She agreed. A couple of years later, I was a Vice President. During the six years from the start of my career until the birth of my first born, I had more than doubled my salary, had a great team working for me, and was respected by my managers, staff, clients, competitors and other people in my network.

I had leaned in, and it had paid off.

Can we be good parents and good workers too?

As you've probably already guessed, this post isn't just about me. It is about Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In:  Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In the book, Sandberg writes:

The ideal worker is defined as someone always available for work, and the 'good mother' is defined as always available to her children.

I had never heard of Sheryl Sandberg when my son was born, nor did I know much about the so called 'mommy wars' that I was about to wade into, but I did know that continuing to climb up the corporate ladder wasn't for me. I didn't want to feel like I was sneaking out early if I wanted to be home for dinner with my family. I didn't want phone calls from my boss at home in the evening to wake the baby. I didn't want to have to ask anyone for permission to attend my child's school play or ask for time off to take my child to a doctor's appointment. This wasn't about living up to corporate or societal expectations, it was about recognizing that I couldn't be the employee I wanted to be, the mother I wanted to be, and the human being I wanted to be. Something had to give.

So, I opted out.

A couple of months into my maternity leave, I contacted the company and I told them that I wouldn't be coming back. I wasn't choosing to stay at home full-time, but I was choosing to chart my own path. I started my own consulting business.

At first, I was nervous. My partner had just started his first post-law-school job, which he wasn't enjoying and where he wasn't being paid the salary he had hoped for. What if no one wanted to use my services? If my business failed, then what? But it turns out I was nervous for nothing. Not only did I have no trouble getting contracts (thanks to the leaning in I'd done before my son was born), but I also didn't have to give a significant chunk of my billings to someone else or to corporate overhead. I could take on as much or as little as I wanted to. I ended up making more money, while taking at least eight weeks of vacation each year.

I rejected the 'ideal worker' expectations. I think the expectation of constant availability or of a bum in a seat from 9 to 5 or 7 to 7 or whatever it might be is counterproductive. I made a decision in my consulting business to take on work that was based on outcomes or deliverables, not based on putting in time. Sure, I would gladly meet with clients, but at a mutually convenient time, not at their beck and call. Sure, I would put in long hours to get work done and meet deadlines, but I got to choose how to allocate that time. I know there are some corporate environments that work like that too, but they are few and far between, so I created one for myself. I probably work more hours in total than the average person in a corporate job, but I also know I take many more days off than they could ever dream of.

This was the only way that I could reconcile the conflict between the ideal worker and the good mother and it turned out to be the best way for so many reasons.

Could I have leaned in anywhere?

A lot of the critique that I've seen of Sanberg's book is that her suggestions are not always realistic. The combination of her privilege, her forward-thinking bosses and work environments, and her seniority at the time she became a mother played a huge role in the success of her tactics. As an example, a junior employee wouldn't have an executive assistant to schedule their last meeting of the day out of the office so that they could go directly home from that meeting and not be seen sneaking out "early" (i.e. in order to be home in time for dinner with the family). A person working a low-wage fast food job wouldn't have many of the luxuries that Sanberg had as she made her choices.  Someone without a nanny might not just want to be home for dinner each night, they might need to be home for dinner each night.

Some of us have more choice than others and those choices, combined with privilege, can make a difference in the success of Sanberg's tactics. For example, when I was doing my MBA I had the opportunity to visit the trading floor of a major Canadian bank in London, England. I asked why there were no women on the trading floor. The executive who was showing us around said, "I don't know. I guess it isn't a job that appeals to a lot of women." He went on to acknowledge, but not really apologize for, the misogyny that women in the industry are faced with. I majored in financial management and it would have made sense for me to go into the financial services industry, possibly working on a trading floor somewhere. In fact, I interviewed for jobs in that field. But I chose not to go that route. I wanted to work somewhere where I would be recognized for my abilities, not somewhere where I'd have to wage war against the patriarchy each and every day.

Yes, we need trailblazers, but I didn't feel that I could be that trailblazer and meet my own goals without burning myself out. I needed to choose the environment that offered me the most potential for growth, not the one where I could break down the most barriers. Sandberg also encourages people to go after growth; but again, I think that is a luxury not everyone can afford. Some people have to choose stability over growth, because they don't have a safety net to fall into if the rocket ship comes crashing down.

What about the men?

In the book, Sandberg does an excellent job talking about the double standards in our gendered society. She writes:

And what about men who want to leave the workforce? If we make it too easy for women to drop out of the career marathon, we also make it too hard for men. Just as women feel that they bear the primary responsibility of caring for their children, many men feel that they bear the primary responsibility of supporting their families financially. Their self-worth is tied mainly to their professional success, and they frequently believe they have no choice but to finish that marathon.

She goes on to talk about a team-building exercise at a company retreat where half of the men in the group listed their children as a hobby. "A hobby?", she writes, "For most mothers, kids are not a hobby. Showering is a hobby." Those are just a few examples of the double standard that she raises throughout the book.

She also talks about creating equality in her own home (albeit with the support of a nanny) and encourages other women to seek that equality too. She even discusses research about the importance of involved fathers in the psychological well-being of children and the impact on their cognitive abilities. However, she doesn't seem to transfer that over to her workplace practices. She writes:

At Facebook, I teach managers to encourage women to talk about their plans to have children and help them continue to reach for opportunities.

This, more than anything, is where I took issue with Sandberg's recommendations. Even if we put the legal and human resources implications of that aside (as she does, while noting the risk), my question would be: What about the men? Why, after everything else she said in the book, would she once again assume that only women need to worry about balancing their childrearing plans with their careers? If she wanted to be part of the solution, she would sit down with the men too and help them find a way to be able to pick their child up at daycare while still going for that promotion, instead of just assuming (as most managers do, and as most men do), that the men would just continue playing the 'ideal worker' role, even after their baby is born.

Sandberg herself says:

When a couple announces that they are having a baby, everyone says “Congratulations!” to the man and “Congratulations! What are you planning on doing about work?” to the woman. The broadly held assumption is that raising their child is her responsibility.

It is a valid critique, and a double-standard she is continuing by encouraging women to think about how they'll combine their career with their family, without encouraging men to do the same. Sandberg also notes that men are more likely than women to negotiate compensation, benefits, titles, and other perks. But I wonder if that extends to things like flexible schedules, working from home, part-time work, needing to leave in time to pick the kids up at day care, and more. Are those thing that men negotiate for? Or are those just 'unreasonable demands' that women make?

It isn't just about individuals

Another critique I've heard of Sandberg's book is that it doesn't address the significant structural issues that prevent women from achieving equality in the workplace and in the home. That is a fair point, but to be fair to Sandberg, she recognizes that and addresses it upfront. She argues that we need to address the external obstacles (structural and societal issues) that keep women from reaching their potential, while also addressing the internal issues (i.e. the things that women do to hold themselves back). She is very explicit about the fact that both are important, but that her book is about the latter. From that perspective, I think the book is very good and could be useful to a lot of women in a lot of different work environments, even if it isn't universally applicable or appealing.

I want to hear from you. Did you read Sanberg's book? What did you think? What has helped you succeed in your career while also raising a family? 

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Reader Comments (15)

I'm about half way through Sandburg's book right now. I wish I could have read a book like this before starting my career as a software programmer 17 years ago. I have learned (and experienced) most of what she talks about in her book, but it would have been a great benefit to clue in on some of those lessons earlier in my life.

If I was mentoring a young female programmer I would most definitely give this book as a primer. I would give her the book with a gain of salt, because everyone is different and scenarios are never the same. Take want you want and build on it.

April 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

I haven't read Lean It (yet), as I haven't wanted to be angry/frustrated during my limited reading time. I too leaned in while working and was promoted months before going on mat leave.

Now I'm struggling with whether I want to go back to work or not. Go back and risk not being the mother I want to be. Don't go back and waste my MBA education/be bored intellectually. It might be time to find something that allows me to do both and do both better.

April 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJana

I love this. Thank you for noting the double standards that still exist between the roles expected of mothers & fathers & how even when we mean well we're still guilty of perpetuating them because they're so deeply ingrained. I had a somewhat similar path & just wrote about it recently here: http://www.busysincebirth.com/2013/04/the-having-it-all-project-danielle-van.html

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle G. Van Ess

This gives me some reassurance that a career path I'm considering is feasible. I'm interested how the "leaning in" you did before your son's birth helped with getting contracts.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPG

Thanks to Danielle for sharing this post with me. I wrote about my thoughts before reading here: http://www.momsrising.org/blog/lean-in-to-what-exactly/ and after reading here: http://www.busysincebirth.com/2013/04/more-on-leaning-in.html. While the book was not perfect, it has engendered a lot of discussion in my own life already. Sunday I'm attending the second session of a group I started with friends to help sort out these issues in our lives and support each other through them. We wouldn't have done that without the idea of a "Lean In Circle" in mind. It does seem that so many of my friends have taken paths similar to yours, and my own path of working still in corporate life (in finance even) is the road maybe less traveled. I'm still sorting through my feelings on that piece of it.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

I haven't read the book, but I think you have a great point about the contrast between what Sandberg says about fathers in the workplace in general vs. what she says about her own actions in the workplace.

Three years before I became a parent, I was supervising a man who became a father. I said, "Congratulations! What are you planning to do about work?" He said his wife would take 12 weeks off and return to her full-time job, and her mother would care for the baby. I had to ask again to get him to talk about plans for *his* career; he was assuming it would not change. Later he grumbled that his mother-in-law had decided not to quit her job to care for her grandchild after all. I offered to negotiate if he wanted to work different hours or part-time, but he wouldn't hear of it and was actually kind of hostile. He left for a higher-paying job that would better cover the cost of full-time childcare.

When my partner and I were expecting our child, one of his female co-workers gave him tips on negotiating with the boss for a flexible schedule. It was very helpful to us, even though he was still working full-time while I had gone to part-time and our baby was in childcare during my working hours, because the flexibility allowed him to sleep later and to focus the first part of his morning on helping baby and me get ready to go--he didn't have to get dressed, etc., until after we left. He's not a morning person anyway and was more productive at work when he went in later, so it was a great situation all around.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter'Becca

This post gives me motivation to follow in your footsteps. I just graduated from UCLA with a degree in BioEngineering, and sometimes I wonder if we women can have it all? I certainly think we can, as evidenced by women like you. Additionally, we even have individuals like Marissa Mayer who are doing it all (though she does have a few hundred million dollars to help her with any hardships).

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

I think we need to really examine what success means for us. And I mean that only half as hippy-dippy as it sounds. I'm only talking about "professional" success. Not life success/satisfaction (which is important too). You wrote that you "opted out." I don't know whether you consider that opt-out temporary or not; but even though you went on to work more hours and make more money, some would still see you as continuing to have opted out. That is, some would consider you less successful than you were. Which sounds almost ridiculous. more hours, more money, no boss, same category and quality of work/results. How is that "out?" Well, it's "out" in one of the commonest ways that we conventionally view success: position in the hierarchy - the amount of money and number of people _under_ your responsibility. Plus, what are the wider social consequences of a definition of success that relies heavily on hierarchy?

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren L


The leaning in I did helped me to get contracts because I'd developed a reputation as an expert in my field, experience that helped me win competitive bids, and a wide network of people who referred me to opportunities that they thought would be a good fit for me.

April 29, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting


I think it is great that you took a more balanced approach in your workplace and your home. We need that to become second nature for more managers and couples.

April 29, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting


Yes, absolutely. I opted out of the hierarchy, I didn't opt out of professional success.

I don't have any intentions of going back to a situation where I'm working for someone else, because no one has been able to show me how I'll continue to enjoy the benefits that I have right now (flexible schedule, lots of vacation time) and still make the same amount of money that I'm making now. I remain open to the option, but I don't see it happening. The one possible option might be in academia (which is something I've considered doing, while continuing to consult on the side).

April 29, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I read it right when it came out. I especially liked her comments about women who are worrying about families before they've even got them; she was speaking of a woman who was considering passing over opportunities because 'how will I handle this when I have children later on?'. Later on is later on & this woman had no immediate plans to have children. I liked her advice on jumping in with both feet NOW & worry about how it will work out once you actually have a family. Maybe you'll change positions, maybe the position won't even exist anymore! If this job & experience is interesting/valuable to you now, just do it.

While she tries to say that she supports women who make the choice to stay home, she inevitably comes on the side of not staying home. I think that's not surprising given her age & her choices. She's still living these choices right now. Maybe years from now, she'll have a slightly more nuanced view. She certainly already seems to have some regrets about her mat leave with baby 1.

I'd recommend this book be read in conjunction with Susan Faludi's Backlash & with an older book called Sequencing: Having it all but not all at once by Arlene Rossen Cardozo. Sequencing is from the 80's but still a treasure.

Btw, I consider myself a sequencer. I quit my career to stay home with my babies even though I was the higher earner in our family. I then stayed home to homeschool my kids. They're 15 & 18 now. I've not regretted it for a moment :) It's opened up a world of different opportunities for me (personally and professionally) & for our family as a whole.

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterhornblower

Thanks for your post. I have just finished reading Lean In. Or should I call it "Sheryl takes Women's Studies 101"?
I just would like to point out that, as a European, I found this book very "Americano-centric", though North American working culture is now a dominant model in our globalized world in certain sectors. Most of what she says is applicable by privileged women (and men) in the USA/Canada (or certain other settings). She gives some good advice. It also makes a difference whether you are supposed to work 42,5 hours a week in average (like in Switzerland), or only 35 (like in France, but that is more a theory than a successful practice). And whether you have no paid vacation, only 2 weeks (insane in my view!) or 4, fully paid. I also wonder if it makes a difference to have state sponsored affordable and good daycare for your children? It is the case in France (where children also start school very young) and I wonder if they have more women in the hierarchy... This book has left me with so many questions.
What I see now is that more and more (younger) men also are opting out and privileging a good quality of life (less stress, more time as a family, more time for hobbies and community) over more money. It is not just a problem for women, or a problem in the "work place"... it is a whole cultural and societal issue.

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEuropean Reader

I haven't read Lean In yet, so I can't comment on that. I have kids and have tried every different permutation of working, I think - full time in an office environment, part time in an office, part time from home, running my own business. One thing that has helped me succeed in my career while raising a family is doing something I really believe in. I found that it was really, really hard to give up time with my family when I was doing something I didn't love and that had no benefit to society whatsoever. When I switched to working in the nonprofit world, in a field I believe in wholeheartedly (public health), the sacrifices became easier. But underscoring the whole thing? Privilege - my ability to make career choices not just based on finances.

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLexie Wolf

I feel like this post, like Sandberg's book, only applies to a tiny percentage of the population: those with well-above-average socioeconomic status, education, ambition, and talent. As someone taking time off from working (other than a couple of weeks of contract work each year) to raise my son, I spent most of the first year after my maternity leave officially ended feeling guilty for not having started some kind of home-based business. I am just not someone with the skills or personality needed to start that kind of business, whether a professional consultancy or a crafty Etsy site. It took a long time for me to accept that it was ok for me to spend these few short years being solely a stay-at-home Mom - not a stay-at-home businesswoman, a stay-at-home chef, a stay-at-home Pinterest-worthy craftmaker, etc.
All of us who have commented on this post are lucky enough to be in a position to think about what will fulfill us most as parents, workers, and human beings, but the vast majority of women and men do not have this option. Is it just simpler to start conversations about structural changes and work-life balance in the workplaces of those privileged few ultra-high achievers? Or, by leaving out the parents who answer phones, build houses, make lattes, or enter data, are Sandberg and others implying that their work is without value and their families' happiness unimportant?
Not everyone gets the chance to "lean in", but we should all be able to make choices that enable us to be both workers and parents if and when we want to be. Books and posts like this show that we still have a long way to go.

June 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

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