Sunday, March 24, 2013


So, in the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. I've read a lot of the posts around the blogosphere that the book has inspired, and it leaves me with one question.

Why is being a business leader - male or female - the pinnacle of achievement to which we are all supposed to aspire?

The assumption is evident in the editor's note on this article, which really stuck in my craw:  What's really holding women back? The glass ceiling? The boys' club? Having a family? Or is it women themselves?

What's really holding women back FROM WHAT? Why is it a given that everyone regardless of gender wants the CEO's office or salary or responsibilities? Or even upper management?

In the hierarchy of every office that I've ever worked in, the number of people at each subsequent level of management gets smaller. And I'm not talking about the percentage of women but the straight up number of people - you've got one CEO, three executive VPs, six middle managers, 27 staff people. Obviously, not everyone is going to be able to rise to the top - so why does it reflect badly that some people just decide from the get-go that they don't want to deal with eighty-hour weeks and having nannies watch their kids grow up?

I have mentioned before that I realized that I don't want to be the boss - and I mean that in both the sense of the corporate cog-in-the-wheel and the entrepreneur. Two quotes from this article in New York Magazine sum up how I feel:

"Maybe most important, what if a woman doesn't have Sandberg-Slaughter-Mayer-level ambition but a more modest amount that neither drives nor defines her? "


When Slaughter tours the lecture circuit, she is often approached, she says, by women younger than 30 who say, "I don't see a senior person in my world whose life I want."

That last one is especially important - when I lived in New York, everyone above me seemed so stressed. They had hours-long commutes, and they worked 60+ hour weeks. They "worked hard and played hard." They slept poorly and ate worse, they complained about how the nanny raised their kids, they tried to bow out of work parties because they were so exhausted. Worst of all, for someone working in publishing - they didn't have any time to read. They read summaries of the books we were working on, but they never read for pleasure, never read anything else that was being published in the world. Why work with books if you don't have time to read them?

That was a big reason why Peanut and I moved away. We wanted to live in a place that allowed us the freedom to quit jobs we didn't like, to have a nice place to come home to and time to enjoy it, to have time for hobbies. We wanted to be close to family and friends and be able to spend time with them instead of working. All of these decisions were made for US, without regard for gender. We knew that we would be "hurting" our careers by moving to the midwest and "settling" for a "mediocre" life.

I'll tell you what, though, I am happier here. I am happy in a deep, secret part of me that I never had access to while I was surrounding myself with Beautiful People doing Interesting Things on their Way to Greatness. And I only got that way by stepping off the treadmill for less prestige.

But of course, the discussion that Sandberg's book has prompted is most specifically about women leaving the workplace to raise children, and I'm in a peculiar place with regards to that right now myself.

I've had a lot of jobs and have worked in two different industries. I'm goal-oriented and I like to work. Right now, I'm staying at home as a fulltime mom - I can't even get to the housewife or homemaker part of it, because being a mom is more than a fulltime job. And it's the hardest job I've ever had. The pay is abysmal, the hours are terrible, the boss demanding. Compared to this, my office job is a piece of cake. I'm good at it, I know what I'm doing, I understand the expectations, the compensation and hours are more than reasonable. No one throws up on me.

I have a few more months of maternity leave before I have to decide whether I am going back to work or not. I know how lucky I am in that this actually is a choice available to me, financially, but I'm frustrated that I live in a world that seems to think that only one of those choices is a valid one, and that the other option is "holding me back".

The best commentary I saw on Sandberg's book was over at The Simple Dollar, where Trent covered the idea that "leaning in" can apply to men as well as women, and that the most important thing anyone should do is to take time to consider where they'd like to lean and how far. I totally agree with him that we should all take an honest look at our lives and realize that it's impossible for anyone to truly have it all, regardless of our gender, and to make sure that we're making the choices that really will give us the lives we want.

On a related note, I think I would like to teach Baby M to respond to questions of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "Happy!" and hope that the asker lets her define that for herself.


  1. I feel the same way. I was talking to a coworker the other day who complained about a "careers panel" that was at a recent work conference. All the panelists were those VP-types who basically rotated around to a bunch of departments, networked like mad, and got those fancy jobs. His complaint (that I agree with) is that there's nothing wrong with NOT being in upper management. There needs to be people who are experts, who stay in one career path. Without all the engineers and scientists at our company, nothing could happen! So yes, some people want that high up job managing hundreds of people. But some of us want to focus on research and development.
    Don't get me wrong, I still want to advance within my career as an engineer. I want more responsibilities, more opportunities to run a research program, more recognition for my work. But I don't need to be an executive vice president of something.

  2. I think everyone has to decide for themselves what happiness means to them and what "it all" means to them. For people like you and I, it appears to mean that we want freedom to be with our families and pursue our hobbies.

    I still think we do need more women in leadership positions, because I think the corporate landscape would be more inviting if women were more equally represented at the top -- more support for working women, more balanced work lives, etc. (maybe it's just a dream, but I'm going to cling to it anyway). That's why I'm going to root for any woman who defines success or happiness by reaching the top of her business or profession. Maybe she can help make the environment better for everyone, so that aiming to be leaders won't mean so much personal sacrifice.

  3. In one of my grad school classes, a professor once asked how many people in the room wanted to be a CEO one day. Only me and one other person didn't raise our hands. I don't want to work all the time. My husband is in sales and had the opportunity to move into management and turned it down because the pay wasn't that much better, but the hours and stress levels were terrible. He has a ton of flexibility in his current job. He even meets us for things like storytime at the library on occasion.

    I have a 4 month old and quit my job for now, but I do contract work for them for about 15 hours a week. I plan on keeping the contract work going as long as I possibly can. I don't make much money, but I'm able to stay home with M, keep my foot in the door, and bring home a little cash for her college fund.

  4. Cynically, I think that the editor deliberately portrays the pinnacle of success is becoming a business leader which has more to do with limiting the scope of conversation and a refusal to explore nuances than it has similarity to reality. I do think that women should have an equal playing field (as equal as that gets anyway) if that's their goal but I don't accept that the world thinks that is the end-all, be-all.

    Anecdotally, there are plenty of men and women who don't feel the need to aim for management or "higher" roles knowing that their abilities are best suited to being individual contributors. My own staff had a variety of ambitious people who did or didn't care to rise up in the ranks but that desire or lack thereof didn't take away from their performance one bit. A friend we expected to aim for the "higher" rank opted out of medical school entirely and among other things, became a SAHM. She's happy. It's great.

    I definitely aimed for "the top", knowing that I might not want the actual top job but really wanting to have as much freedom as my ambition and hard work could create.

    Ideally, from that freedom, I want to have the choice of working full time, momming full time, or doing both in same combination. I don't *think* I want to mom full time because I'm naturally sort of lazy and my brain would probably fall apart but that's my current educated guess. But like you, my parents only said: do what you're going to love and be happy doing. That's a huge part of the conversation we should have.

  5. I don't think her point has to do with just getting to the C-suite. Women are still earning less than men in almost every industry across income levels. I saw Sandberg interviewed on 60 Minutes and appreciated how she tried to apply the principals of her book to all women - even the single mom working a lower paid job, not just MBA edcuated women vying for leadership roles. In fact she said "leaning in" and learning to stand up for yourself may even be MORE important for those women.

    Still, it IS telling that so few have reached upper level management jobs, elected positions in government, etc. after nearly 3 decades of equaling and often outpacing men in education. I understand and partly agree with your argument that many women just don't want to lead. That's actually proving her point (that women hold themselves back in some ways). The question remains though - why?


Thanks for commenting!