Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has been in the news this week, both for her updated take on “Leaning In” after tragically losing her spouse and being a single mom for the past year, and also for her moving graduation speech at Cal.
There was also a response from startup founder and blogger Penelope Trunk, who called Sandberg’s simplistic ideas a "sham," and reminded us that feminism means we all have a choice to lean in, or not lean in, or not work at all, for that matter, whether we have a supportive spouse or not. I have a lot of complex feelings about motherhood and the working world, and from the start, the whole idea of “leaning in” struck me as vaguely sexist and lacking in recognition for the complexity of real life. In fact, I resisted it as divorced from reality and not resonating at all with me and my experience.
But to be fair, I never read the book, and I didn’t participate in the discussion circles, or follow Ms. Sandberg online. With only a vague idea of what the book is about, and only an impression of “leaning in” from the media and popular culture, what I understand the concept to be is an embracing of challenges, taking risks, and believing you can, as a woman, take on leadership roles in your career that stretch your comfort level and help you grow.
But I don’t like the idea of defining that concept with a catchphrase. It echoes the very real cultural gender barriers to success, like the fact that equal sharing of childcare and household duties is still not the norm. I have a great and supportive spouse, and we have grown together over our 20+ years of marriage, developing a partnership to share the work. For young women, finding the right partner is understandably critical. Other women are most certainly smarter than me and planned everything out more carefully, having all of those important conversations with their partners in advance about sharing childrearing and planning careers together. I do expect that for a good number of us, life intervenes and hands us the joys and challenges we encounter.
I had my first baby just before third year in law school. I was 24 years old, had no passion whatsoever for working as a lawyer, and had little idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I took 19 credit hours to finish on time, and passed the bar. When the firm that I was planning on working for let me know that they didn’t have the ability to provide any reduced schedule or flexibility, I understood. Associates at large law firms then (as probably now) were basically owned by their firms. It was a big deal back then to have your employer pay for a cell phone, but it was their way of handcuffing you to your job, 24/7, so you could bill hours for them and then they could use you up and spit you out if you couldn’t hack it.
I told them “thanks but no thanks,” and leaned out so I could stay with my baby, and then had another one. I paid a staggering price career-wise, but I don’t regret it. My children are grown now, and since I had a choice, I feel lucky I was able to hang around with them instead of doing research, writing memos and placating clients. I'm sure there are some, but as far as I know, none of the women I was close to in law school have stayed long enough at a traditional large law firm to make partner, although plenty of the men have. They make great money, and some have even gone on to be successful in politics or become CEOs. They are intelligent, successful and deserving people, and I am proud to know them. I don't know about what challenges they may have faced as dads with demanding careers, but I don't think anyone had to tell them to go for it. They just did.
Now that I’m older, and my kids are grown, you would think I have a lot of pent-up “leaning in” I want to do. Maybe it’s time to read that book, go to the discussion group, and follow Sheryl Sandberg online. She has been through heartache and tragedy, in a very public role, and she has generously shared her vulnerability in a way that inspires me. I still don’t think “leaning in” is the only answer for women who want success. But I do think listening to what other women have experienced helps, whether it resonates with me or not. And that probably includes listening to Sheryl Sandberg too.