“We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers.” – Sheryl Sandberg
“Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.” – Rosa Brooks
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published well over a year ago – and yet, there are still conversations reverberating around cyberspace among both rabid fans and angry detractors. I jumped in the fray myself when I shared a Washington Post article on Facebook called “Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg)”. I was particularly struck by this article because it was written by Rosa Brooks, the former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and who also served as a State Department senior adviser. This is a woman whose workplace pressures dramatically exceed my own and it was, frankly, such a relief to read Brooks’ exhortations to “fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”
In the nonprofit sector, there is a tired old axiom that we are in this only for the greater good, that our passions are enough to fuel our work, that the rewards for driving positive change are all we need.
Yes, many of us feel inspired by our work, and passionate about our causes. But the fuel we need is the stuff that goes in our gas tank that gets us from home to work every day, and the rewards we need are the kind that put food on the table and diapers on the toddler. And though we are willing to do this work for paychecks much smaller than our corporate counterparts, it feels wholly unfair to expect and ask us to take on more, build our networks further, and be even more productive as we struggle to simply get through the day. It reminds me of what my mother always said when I was an impatient child, begging for more, more, more: “I’m dancing as fast as I can.”
However, Sandberg, in Lean In, has two important points that resonate with me: first, she asks women to not disqualify ourselves for leadership positions because we aren’t sure we can do them, or because we believe our experience might be perceived as inadequate. Second, she asks us not to refuse leadership positions because we want a family.
I have a dirty little secret: before I accepted my current job, I asked the recruiting consultant to find out if maternity coverage was included in the health care package. I wasn’t sure if this was an appropriate question, but I wasn’t afraid to ask it. My then-job did not cover maternity, and it was truly a deal-breaker. I wasn’t about to have yet another barrier in my way to starting a family.
But many women likely do not feel they can ask questions like that, because they are frightened of scaring off possible employers, and exposing themselves to scrutiny about their priorities. But shouldn’t this kind of information be readily available, without the question even being asked?
On a separate note, what do we do about that fact that so many women, according to Sandberg, undervalue themselves and question their abilities? Certainly many women I know feel like the only way to prove their worth is to work themselves to utter exhaustion. I remember that one of the only days I ever knocked off early at my former job was when I managed to raise $50K in an hour during a lunchtime presentation. That was big potatoes for me at that time, and I allowed myself to leave at 3 PM to celebrate. I’m embarrassed to say that I prided myself on the ridiculous hours I worked, typed away at to-do lists when on phone calls, and went back to work after dinner far more often than I really needed to.
Brooks, in her Washington Post article, has answers for both the undervaluing, and the family issues. She says that we need to “fight the culture of workplace ubiquity” – i.e. the expectation that we are at our computers 24/7 and working all hours of the day and night – and to work on the gender imbalance that still dominates the home life, in that women still do the disproportionate share of housework and parenting.
Good suggestions, certainly. But there is also a great deal of snark and hateful language in Brooks’ article, and Sandberg seems a convenient punching bag for the frustrations of the pressures put on all of us. Why does even this conversation have to be so combative?
Sandberg wants us women to step into more leadership positions, to stop undervaluing ourselves, and to embrace the fact that we can have a family and a meaningful career. She’s also a gagillionaire whose perspective can be a little hard to swallow. Brooks wants us to fight for gender equality, and to make time and space in our lives to allow for more breathing, resting, and reclining.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, well, yes. To all of this. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.
It’s the how. And the how rests with those of us who are in a position to actually do something about this. I have some positional power where I can create an environment that supports leadership, families, and self-care. And I can advocate that others in my field do the same.
Our workload isn’t going to go away. The number of people who need our services in the nonprofit sector is not likely to shrink dramatically anytime soon. And our paychecks are not going to double, either. So what can we do, to ease the burden, to relieve some pressure, and to invite staff members – particularly women – to achieve these ideals?
I have some ideas, many of which I’ve written about before: flexible hours, the expressing of gratitude, rewarding great work (with cash, not just words, if you can!), investing in the personal and professional growth of staff members, encouraging (and insisting, if need be) staff members to take paid days off if they’ve been at full burn.
But I think it’s also important to be honest and vulnerable about our own struggles. I suppose that’s why, even with the snark, I appreciated Brooks’ article. Even though she is certainly a woman of much greater means and responsibility than me, she still seems grounded in the same challenges I face every day. And to have someone like her cry “UNCLE!” and say she can’t take it any more makes me feel relieved about hollering about it, too.
I’m bleeding money every month to cover the cost of daycare for two small children. I’ll miss seeing my family this holiday season because we cannot begin to afford the trip to New York. My three-month emergency savings that I built up as a single person has all but evaporated since my second child came along. I feel intense pressure around money on top of feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to truly show up for my work and my family.
Comparatively, I’m incredibly fortunate. I make a decent salary, I’ve got a very flexible and supportive workplace, I’ve got a truly wonderful and brilliant husband, and I love my job and my colleagues. And yet, sometimes I feel I’ll collapse under the weight of the pressure not only to do more, but to also do better.
I have to wonder where this pressure comes from – this sick feeling that I’m always falling short. Do men experience this? Do dads spend many hours a day feeling torn in half between work and kids? Do they constantly battle feelings of inadequacy? Maybe, but in my experience, not nearly as much as women do.
I cannot begin to imagine what these work and family pressures must feel like for people in more difficult circumstances – whose salaries are terribly low, who are single parenting, who hate their jobs, who aren’t supported in their workplaces. I think it’s all well and good to invite each other to recline OR lean in but the invitation isn’t enough. Those of us with the capacity to create change in our organizations need to build in systems and cultures that allow people to work the way they want and need to while still ensuring productivity and encouraging passion. And we need to figure out why it’s so difficult for many women to enjoy an ongoing feeling of accomplishment and peace. As a very smart friend said to me recently, “Nobody needs to hold us back or do violence to us if we’ve internalized it.”
I’m on a path to try to figure this out, and to do something about it. If you have any brilliant ideas, I’m listening.