Why I am ‘Leaning Out’

A few weeks ago the plight of women in business was made inordinately ‘sexy’, cult-like, and fascinating to the masses.  Why might you ask?  Due to Sheryl Sandburg’s new book called Lean In.  Sandburg is the inimitable COO at facebook, the leadership mastermind behind Zuckerburg’s nerdy disconnectedness.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am all about equality, opportunity, and women kicking ass.  I went to a women’s college, I play rugby, I was a non-tenured professor/subject matter expert at the age of 25.  I embody these things, and I likely should love the ‘Lean In’ movement, and yet (to be frank)  Sandberg and her motley
crew of successful women over at leanin.org have me rather irate.

Thus far I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time looking at the website
and reading some of the book at Barnes and Noble (edit:  as much as I could stomach to read without feeling frustrated) and as a subsequent
result I feel baffled at how Sandberg has managed to reinvent 2nd wave
feminism, wrap it nicely in an edgy looking box, and tie it up with a
bow of capitalist ideology.

Sandberg’s concept is simple.  She is suggesting that women ‘lean in’ at work so they can truly find their potential as leaders.  The overview of Lean In states thatSandberg’s book is an inspiring call to action and a blueprint for individual growth”.

A blueprint for individual growth?  What kind of growth are we talking about here?  I deeply and passionately believe in women’s equality, and to have the
right to ‘lean in’ but I am afraid of the glorification of what success
is, and how success should be viewed.  Why is success measured in the
size of your bank account?  Is success really measured by being the CEO/COO of X company? (Erika Napoletano talks in depth about this at her blog too.)

The movement reads like a feminist manifesta version of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

As if the moment they ‘leaned into’ their work they went from being mere mortals to being success magnets that figured it all out.  But in truth, it is not as if they leaned in and suddenly were masters of their domain.  This immortal mythology of the infamous woman who ‘leans in’ isn’t simply due to desire or vision or passion.  No, the ability to lean in is a privilege, one that comes with inordinate amounts of support, education, and ability to continue ‘leaning in’ despite other responsibilities.

I think the issue here is that we shouldn’t be convincing women to ‘lean in’, we should be encouraging them that they can do anything.  We should tell our five year old girls all the way up to our fifty year old girls that the choice of what they do, how they view success, etc is theirs.

It is clear (even on the Lean In site itself) that even if women do ‘lean in’ we still have a lot of work to do at a much earlier age.  No one, not a woman or a man, should be terrified to reach out to someone who can mentor them.  Take this example from the site.  A young, newly hired woman at McKinsey and Company find herself wanting to be engaged in the leadership program that the head of McKinsey had created:  “My request was simple: to have some involvement in her leadership program. I was worried she wouldn’t respond, or worse, she would reply  and let me know my biggest fear was true, that I wasn’t good enough. Finally, after several drafts, I took the plunge and hit send.”

The fear is so evident, and while the response from the future mentor was positive, it hurts to know that anyone would be that afraid to send an email.  This internal dialogue of self-doubt needs to be shifted, by men and women alike.

It’s not so much that I have problems with her adage that women should ‘lean in’, as so much that I despise the concept that anyone should ever feel as if they need to lean in or lean out but rather people (all of them) should be able to commit to their dreams even if that dream is stay at home parent, CEO, small business owner, broadway star, etc.

For nearly a decade I focused on ‘leaning in’, put my heart and soul into the corporate world.  I thought I’d someday be a Chief Marketing Officer of a multi-national organization.  But love happened, in a non-conventional way (at first), then in a very conventional way.  You see I first fell in love with doing good, being a bleeding heart, focusing my thoughts on who and what my work was for.  In this process I met and married the love of my life, left my doing good and became a wife.  A wife dead set on raising children from home, a wife who would make most of my 2nd wave feminist friends squirm.  And in doing so I found that I was leaning out of the corporate world and my work.  And leaning into a different type of work, the work that Steinem and Freidan would condemn.  Tough cookies ladies, it is my life.

In leaning out I found bliss.  I found my calling.  And here I am now.  I’m leaning out, and I am damn proud of it.  So lean in if you feel like it, but don’t make it the movement for us all.  We’re much more complicated than that, and I for one have no intention of going back.

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