How Working Women Cope: To Lean In or Not

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is a gift for all of us in many ways. Sheryl has created a maelstrom of conversation that should help both men and women examine their careers for opportunities and flaws. All of us need to consider whether we are actually “leaning in” or “leaning out,” or combining the best of both.

The good news
Sheryl’s best seller creates dialogue for the conference table and dinner table. In December 2010, she gave a TED Talk that drew overwhelming interest.

According to the book, only 16 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. With approximately 14 percent of the top jobs in America going to women, I share her enthusiasm for more women in leadership roles. She doesn’t indicate that women should be more like men, but looks at the need for women to believe in their capabilities and overcome their fears. Of course, we see differences between male and female leaders, but we might have a kinder, gentler, more collaborative work world, if more women would grasp leadership roles, or “lean in” to the job with full steam.

To cope with leadership roles, she emphasizes that household tasks, as well as major work projects, must be negotiated. She states clearly that our life partners must take more responsibility, as long hours are expected. Our electronic devices keep us connected at all hours in global jobs.

The bad news
I don’t think Sheryl’s world looks like most of ours. Her Harvard education and networking relationships obviously helped her to the top, along with her intelligence and drive. I certainly have no friends named Ari Emanuel (brother of Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago), who is listed in her acknowledgements.

Although her children undoubtedly have adequate child care, she probably worries when the nanny can’t take the kids to an after-school event. But working women in my neighborhood don’t have nannies. Parents are sometimes living apart, if one can’t find a job locally. And when the teenager who watches the kids after school has another obligation, how do you cope?

I’m not sure Sheryl is talking to the majority of women, yet she implores women to drive themselves at work, not wait for management to discover their talent! I’ve often said to myself, as a working woman and mom, “Which will it be? Will I feel guilty at work or at home today?”

Hard choices
The stay-at-home mom may keep busy with child care and with civic and religious activities. She may enjoy her freedom until her husband of 15 years says, “Whoops, I’m out of here!” Her degree helps, but her skills are rusty, coupled with a possible devastated ego and unrealistic ideas of her value to the workforce. Even with excellent connections and neighbors for encouragement, “leaning in” is a fairy tale for many women.

Suffice it to say, as Sheryl mentions in her book, “We make hard choices, along with consequences.”

Next week I’ll suggest compromises for consideration. And we’ll look at some of the quotes I’ve collected, while writing this two-part discussion. Your comments on this topic will be greatly appreciated.

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19 comments on “How Working Women Cope: To Lean In or Not

  1. Ravenwood
    April 4, 2013

    Couples wanting a child ought to first agree to make parenting a fulltime commitment. Outsourcing their parenting responsibilities fulltime, Mon-Fri, to a childrearing service bureau  (AKA, “daycare center”) is the real issue, and the root-cause of the guilt discussed in the book.

    To the point that, “…we might have a kinder, gentler, more collaborative work world… ” I say, “…or we might-not. “. Most, if not all, of the successful senior-level female executives I work with are sharp, driven, and every bit as ambitious as their male counterparts. That includes positions in government. Of all the books and seminars and consultants I've encountered in my professional career, I don't recall a title, program or technique themed, “The Kinder, Gentler, more Collaborative Road to the CEO Desk”.

    Oh, how I wish I lived in that world…

  2. kilamna
    April 4, 2013

    Time is time; children do not develop on a schedule.

    I recall some years ago a comment, attributed to Jerry Sanders, in response to the question if he would you do things differently or if he had any regrets.  He said that he would spend more time with family. But, when asked if he would institute such a culture, he responded in the negative: everyone must make that choice.

    My response to the question about the duration of a senior managers 'typical' workweek hours, was whatever is needed in the short-term, but a long-term average of about 50 hrs. That company, which is no longer around, had a culture of 'we dont want people who are running away from something in life and working 100 hr week'.

    There is no kinder-gentler road for ANY worker, employee or self-employed, man or woman. It is all a matter of balance and choices.  When a person chooses to have a family-children, he-she has to choose: (i) to rise to the top must have a partner who will be the stay-at-home parent once the children are old enoiugh 'not to need' the mother 'all the time', OR (ii) take a slower path, and not strive for the cut-throat road to the top. Your stress will do great harm to the children.


  3. Ruth Glover
    April 4, 2013

    Although I agree with what you say, I am hoping this new discussion about women, and leadership in general, may impact companies to try for better equity. Change is inevitable.  Let's hope it's for better, not worse!

  4. Ruth Glover
    April 4, 2013

    Maybe if our economy would truly improve….????

  5. kilamna
    April 4, 2013

    We have a tendency to look for special treatment for groups, I almost would bet that it is driven by lawyers. The ambiguities in the law about treatment of specific groups make it difficult for the common person to navigate. There does not need to be any law about 'protection' of women, the laws about protection of 'people' should apply to ALL. Similarly equity should be for ALL not just women or a specific 'minority-disadvantaged' group. Affirmative action should take the form of 'preparing' that group 'better', rather than giving them positions-jobs for which they may not be the 'best'.

    I take exception to the equity in pay for women claim. That again should be an issue for ALL, not just women.  Have we heard of equity in pay for blacks or Hispanics or Asians? Men and women.

    Men who choose to not fight the back-stabbing corporate climb will often be paid less than who who take on that battle. To each his-her own. BUT please do not attribute lack to promotion to gender alone. 

    If, BTW, we do raise this issue of not-enough-women-on-corporate-boards, we should just as strongly raise the issue of too-many-(ethnicity)(religion)(age)(sexual preference)(drinking)-men-on-corporate-boards or too-many-(xxxxx, ethnicity)-in-(yyyy profession: docs, lawyers, polictician, media, movies, etc)  control roles. BUT as soon as we start even commenting on the latter we are accused of anti-xxx racist bias.

    I can very easily say that there are so few men who dont drink alcohol on corporate boards. Should we then make laws to allocate positions to tee-totalers?

    Change is about the only 'constant' we can depend on. But I hope this is change for the good of ALL, not just a group.


  6. Ravenwood
    April 4, 2013

    re:“Maybe if our economy would truly improve….????”


    Economics? It's not financial values, it's human values.

    America went through a Great Depression and a pair of World Wars. That same period of time is thought by many to be the Golden Years of “family values” (although I prefer to regard it as “value of family”). I would argue that it was during America's later years of propserity that the family unit began to erode. Since this article and the book it promotes is gender biased I almost yielded that women in poor countries bond with their children no less than women in wealthy countries. But having lived in both, I just can't: I find familial bonds in poorer societies generally superior to that of wealthy societies. 

    No, I do not think we should wait for the economy to improve. It already did that. All we're doing now is finding another point of focus other than the mirror.

  7. Ravenwood
    April 4, 2013

    Bravo!….truly, and again: Bravo!

    – Sparky

  8. Ruth Glover
    April 4, 2013

    Thank you for taking time to articulate your thoughts.  I share in your wish for a better, fairer world. The discussion is healthy for insisting we take at least baby steps to improve the need for better leadership, male or female.

  9. Ruth Glover
    April 4, 2013

    I think collaboration is a key word.  I see the word used frequently, but are we honestly collaborating or is it a euphenism for agreement to finish the meeting while watching a clock?   

  10. Daniel
    April 5, 2013

    Ruth, I used to personally encourage my women colleagues and others for leadership roles. But most of the time, they won't, may be because of lack in confidence. Now a day's more statists are coming that women leaderships are good for long run of the industry.

  11. Daniel
    April 5, 2013

    “I think collaboration is a key word.  I see the word used frequently, but are we honestly collaborating or is it a euphenism for agreement to finish the meeting while watching a clock? “

    Ruth, collaborations are happening, but only for individual sake and benefit.

    April 5, 2013

    I think sometimes these types of books could perhaps make normal women feel inadequate and unhappy with their achievements.  Historically the woman has juggled the pressures of raising a family and keeping a career going. There is no doubt it is more natural for a woman to care for young children and it must be difficult to keep a career going meantime.  I think we could all learn from the Scandinavian model where men and women share the load more evenly and companies welcome children into the boardroom.  These countries also rank highest in happiness indices.

  13. Ruth Glover
    April 5, 2013


    Do you think we could get a law passed to follow that model?  Seriously, I think the discussion about the book and our careers is a healthy way to make slow progress. Let the uproar continue!

  14. Ruth Glover
    April 8, 2013

    I saw a tagline this morning, Lean Forward: The Digital Home of MSNBC.  In the Supply Chain World, we talk consistently about Lean Manufacturing.  Perhaps the word “lean” is exactly the word we need for continued discussion on the topic.


  15. Ariella
    April 8, 2013

    @Ruth Does lean in connot making it lean rather than getting involved?

  16. Ariella
    April 8, 2013

    @Ruth You do hit on the dilemma for most working mothers “Which will it be? Will I feel guilty at work or at home today?” That's a them for this video, which presents its heroine as a modern version of Ibsen's Nora. However, not all working women are mothers, and it should not be taken for granted that all females in the workforce have greater family obligations than males in the workforce. 

  17. Ruth Glover
    April 8, 2013


    Thank for your very pertinent comment.  With people living longer, both men and women have serious problems with this growing concern for adequate care, visitations, and seeking the right solutions for family and exteneded family.  Child care is not the only concern in “leaning in.”  


  18. Ariella
    April 8, 2013

    @Rich true, the same with the word “light” or “fat-free,” however, I think we are on the brink of seeing things like water tout themselves as “fat-free,” the same way things that are not made of grain at all boast of being “gluten-free.”

  19. Ariella
    April 8, 2013

    @Rich interesting about salt. I thought the trick for salt was to put in rice to absorb moisture; I hadn't heard of grains.I've bought pepper that contain the warning about being produced in a plant that also handles nuts, wheat, eggs, milk, etc., but I haven't seen that on salt. 

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