Monday, March 10, 2014

Lean In Turns One: An Update

Lean in, stand up straight, recline. I've done all three in the past year as a full time working mom of two young children. I've also read numerous reports in the media and listened to countless stories from friends and colleagues struggling to find the right angle, pose, or response to Sheryl Sandberg's much talked about book. I've given considerable thought to the book and its philosophies over the past 12 months. As the Lean In movement turns one, here are my thoughts on how the message is holding up.

I pre-ordered my copy of "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" last February so I guess you could say I was an early adopter. I organized a panel discussion of the book with top leadership at my academic institution, and helped launch Lean In Circles for women in every career stage from students to full professors. I am a member of one of those Circles and have experienced tremendous support in the form of camaraderie and peer mentoring in my own career. At the same time, I've written on my blog about my struggles with work and family, expressed regret over lost time at home, and questioned whether my kids are thriving when they spend the majority of their days out of my sight. Like most women I know, sometimes I feel the need to lean in at work and at other times to lean back and/or lean in at home.

Proudly holding my copy of Lean In after a panel discussion with leaders of my institution. Photo by Elissa Monroe. 

The strength of the Lean In message is the emphasis on self-empowerment. Too often women downplay their talents, underestimate their abilities, and let others take credit for their hard work. Women are the first to say their accomplishments are the result of great teamwork and a little luck. Most women are perfectly capable of advocating on someone else's behalf, but feel less comfortable speaking up for themselves. Almost universally, women carry around a mountain of guilt and self-doubt. I understand why Sandberg says women limit their own potential and hold themselves back. In its first year, Lean In has given women a language with which to discuss their careers and goals - lean insit at the tableraise your handit's a jungle gym not a ladder. This communication and understanding elevates us out of our silos and reminds us we are not in this journey alone.

But there are some aspects of Lean In that I think miss the mark. Not everyone aspires to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the emphasis on reaching the highest rungs of corporate America unnecessarily limits the impact of the message. Women serving on the school board or running a local charity could also benefit from the Lean In message. And what mother doesn't want to be a stronger, more effective advocate for her child in an IEP meeting with so much at stake? But civic leaders, volunteers, and stay-at-home moms are essentially excluded from the Lean In conversation. Imagine the impact of having stronger women leaders in our communities, and mothers - working outside or inside the home - instilling confidence and leadership skills in their daughters. This is the untapped potential of Lean In -  its ability to apply to all women - hourly workers, CEOs, and moms.

What leaning in at home looks like.

Leaning back allows me to recharge and gain perspective.


I believe Lean In has the potential to make us all stronger versions of ourselves. I've embraced the message, but I've also interpreted it freely. Maybe I'm selectively parsing out language, but leaning in does not have to mean doing more. Every woman I know is already doing more, which is why so many women dislike the Sandberg battle cry. In my interpretation, leaning in means being strategic, focused, and more effective in your pursuit of career goals. I think you can lean in without working 80 hour weeks. I think you can lean in by degrees - 30 degrees one day, 60 the next. It does not have to be all or nothing. I don't believe in leaning in to the point of falling over - but rather finding a sustainable formula for your own vision of success, whatever that might be. My marriage, my children, my husband's career, and my own personal health and happiness are all factored in as variables in my Lean In formula.

The Lean In phenomenon has proven extremely powerful in one year - just look what they've done with the new Getty Images of women and now, the Girl Scouts. But leaning in doesn't solve everything. We need paid paternity leave, more flexible work hours, and policies that support working families in order for women (and families) to thrive in the modern work force (I am impatiently waiting for Anne Marie Slaughter's new book on these issues). Without these changes, working mothers will stall out in their careers and leave the work force in greater numbers. Sheryl Sandberg has started the conversation and I hope that policy change and a cultural shift will follow. Until then, I will lean in by degrees, strategically and with purpose, at just the right angle for my own success and happiness.

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