April 10, 2013
There has been a lot of media furor around Sheryl Sandberg’s book advising career women to ‘lean in” to be more successful. Certainly, she has created conversation about women’s issues and for that we owe her a deep debt of gratitude. I’ve had many conversations about it, not just with women, but also with men. Many men are curious about the book’s contents – they have woken up and are considering the role of women in ways that weren’t previously on their radar.
This heightened awareness extends to women also, who are now considering what it means to ‘lean in’. Some are recommending that we ‘lean back’ instead. Others suggest we ‘stand up straight’ or ‘lean on’. It is an ideal time to ponder what ‘lean in’ means to you and to women overall.
The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente advised women to ‘lean back’ considering that the price of career success is too high. Not only is there is tension between work and home, the managerial track requires heavy lifting and in her words, “enough is enough”. Most women are happy to trade long hours and money, for flexibility and control, she says- ‘leaning back’ is the best path.
I can certainly vouch for this wisdom as I missed many family vacations because an emergency came up at work. There was nothing more deflating than phoning home to say that the share price was falling and I needed to stay at the office to reassure panicky investors while the family went to the lake. However, that didn’t stop me from ‘leaning in’ and seeking more responsibility at the office. Clearly, control and flexibly weren’t enough of a carrot for me.
A Huffington Post columnist Kristin van Ogtrop stated that rather than ‘leaning in, she is going to ‘stand up straight’. Ogtrop loves her job but declares that she doesn’t want to be striving for bigger/stronger/better/higher/
We all want that. I realized early that it was important for me to be part of the world but not too much in it. Going hard at the office needs to be balanced with time to rejuvenate and laughter is an important part of that. I also need time to slow down and be mindful of the beauty of nature. That’s why I turned to meditation nearly thirty years ago. Making time each day to focus on the spiritual side of life made me indeed feel that I was ‘standing up straight’- neither bending too far one way or the other.
During the kickoff address at the recent Women of the World summit held in New York Tina Brown played on the ‘lean in’ theory suggesting that only a select few can push for the corner office. ‘Leaning in’ is a strategy only possible when women are already positioned to reach their rightful place and there are not many countries on the planet where that is in fact the case. Instead she said we should remember the women around the world who are struggling against “cultural repression, economic exclusion and systematic violence”. Forget about ‘leaning in’ Brown said that it is time to ‘lean on’ those who can change the plight of women.
She advised we: ‘lean on’ corporations to change the pitiful representation of women in the boardroom; ‘lean on’ prosecutors of India to end rampant sexual violence; ‘lean on’ courts in Latin America to put an end to impunity for violence against women; ‘lean on’ the pimps who sell girls for sex and the johns who buy them; ‘lean on’ clerics from all religions or turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and deny their fundamental rights; ‘lean on’ brothers who murder their sisters in so-called honour killings; ‘lean on’ entire governments to safeguard the rights and well-being of half their citizens!
The definitions of what it means for women to ‘lean in’ are as varied as women themselves. Sandberg wants to fix the women so they will ‘lean in’ and assume power while Brown is talking about fixing the system so women all over the world will not only have a shot at power, misogyny will come to an end. Meanwhile Wente and Ogtrop have resisted being fixed at all. Quite frankly, we probably need all these versions of ‘lean in’.
The best part of this conversation is the fact that it has finally made it to the agenda. When men and women ‘lean together’ to fix the lagging position for women violence will be reduced for women from the developing world and women in the western world will be considered for more positions at the decision-making table. Let’s ‘lean in’ and make it happen!