Okay girls, go ahead, “lean in,” and you’ll hear a cacophony of voices about what you should do with your lives. At the moment one of the louder voices belongs to Sheryl Sandberg, the storied Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. To lean in, says Sandberg means to push through the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, to go down a path with an uncertain outcome. Conversely, to lean back means to stay in a known, comfortable situation.
The choice is yours. Or is it?
“Girls growing up today,” writes Sandberg, “are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all that opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.” That’s right, you study alongside the boys, take pre-law, pre-med or pre-business classes and if a McKinsey Report from 2011 is indicative of your situation, you can still expect your male colleagues to be promoted on their potential and for you to be promoted on your accomplishments.
Let’s take stock for a moment. For the first time in American history there are more college-educated women than men. Sheryl Sandberg is asking those women to do three critical things to maximize their education and frankly, to remember why they entered the workforce in the first place. She wants women to sit literally at the table. Not to sit off to the side and to stay quiet, but to take a seat next to their male peers and participate in conversations, pitch deals and make decisions. It’s a daunting task considering that 57 percent of men in the workforce negotiated up front for a better salary as opposed to just 7 percent of women who said anything when they received their job offers.
In a 2010 TED talk, the basis for Lean In, Sandberg also reminds women that sitting at the table may take some elbowing in a world where just nine out of 190 heads of state are women, only 13 percent of parliamentarians across the world are women and just 15 to 16 percent of CEOs or COOs are women, Not only has there been no improvement in those corporate numbers, but since 2002 the numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.
The second thing Sandberg advises working women is to make your partner your true partner. That means spouses have equal responsibilities when it comes to childcare and running the house. So don’t just marry well, young women, marry smart because you are smart.
There is a flip side to that advice which comes from the journalist Elsa Walsh, who recently made a deep impression with a piece she wrote for The Washington Post headlined, “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life.” Walsh contends that parenthood and family “are more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”
At first glance it looks like Sandberg and Walsh are butting heads. Sandberg can come across as a career-obsessed woman who admits that, “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.” Walsh, on the other hand, encourages her 17 year-old daughter to “carve out space for solitude. Search for work that allows you flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them older, after you’ve reached the point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while.”
But their counsel is not incompatible. Sandberg, for her part, devotes an entire chapter to the “Myth of Doing It All.” Granted, Sandberg has resources that most working women in this country can only dream of. Besides a supportive partnership with her husband, she can afford top childcare. But putting that aside for a moment, let’s concentrate on the key questions that demythologize the notion of having it all: “Can I do it all or can I do what is most important to me?” Perhaps Walsh has an answer when she observes that “a good enough life is not a failure—it is maturity and self-knowledge.”
The third thing that Sandberg advises is not to leave before you leave. This means stay committed and focused on the job. Don’t project too far into the future. In her TED talk Sandberg mentions a young woman who was anticipating a maternity leave that was so far in the offing she didn’t even have a boyfriend. Walsh read Lean In too and she “nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says.” But like me, she also noticed that Sandberg’s advocacy for more family-friendly policies in the workplace or recognition that full-time motherhood is as meaningful as a corporate career read like “afterthoughts.”
My daughter and son’s generation will have a lot of sorting out of priorities. When the time comes, I want them to lean in and identify the nuances in Sandberg’s and Walsh’s perspectives. Maybe they’ll come to a deeper appreciation of Sandberg’s metaphor of a career pathway as not climbing a ladder, but staying on the jungle gym where men and women move sideways or downwards in order to ultimately move forward in their jobs. Hopefully my children will take to heart Walsh’s assertion that personal relationships are as important to a career as a place at the table. And they’ll work as hard on those relationships as they do in the workplace because in the end, love is what will get them through.