As a former NOW intern, women's studies minor, and proud feminist, there are few things that make me happier than having women's issues highlighted in our collective conversation.
I was thrilled when Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," was published in The Atlantic this past summer, igniting a social media firestorm as women debated the merits of the positions Slaughter took on the feasibility of having a true work/life balance. While I didn't necessarily agree with everything written in the article (apparently you don't get to be a lawyer unless you can find at least something to be contrarian about), I thought it was great progress that the article brought this issue to the surface and got people talking, and thinking, about the challenges facing working mothers. For a short while we talked about Slaughter's article and we engaged in some spirited debate. And then we all sort of forgot about it and went back to tweeting and facebooking (or fakebooking, as the case may be) about whatever particular news story was gaining traction that day.
So, you can only imagine my delight when Sheryl Sandberg, arguably the most powerful woman in social media, wrote a book on this exact subject and made her points just controversial enough to reignite this conversation once again. In her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sandberg admonishes women to take more initiative in the progress of their careers rather than allowing themselves to be passed over on their way up the corporate ladder. By leaning in to workplace opportunities, so to speak, Sandberg believes that women will be able to achieve more at work and realize their full professional potential. She claims that women's progress in the workplace has stalled, at least in part, because women are not advocating well for themselves.
This theory assumes, however, that all women want positions of leadership at work – positions which almost always come hand in hand with increased responsibilities, stress, and time demands. Yes, these positions also come with increased power and earning potential. But I do not believe that every woman has this as her goal, at least not at every point throughout her career. In fact, many of the women who I counsel in my practice actually prefer positions that require less of them, particularly as they transition to motherhood and begin the process of figuring out how to balance work life and home life for the very first time. Should this need to refocus one's priorities, even temporarily, hold women back for the entirety of their career? Should a new mother be labeled as one who "leans back" and is, therefore, responsible for the lag in her professional growth? I think not.
Instead, we must work towards creating flexible arrangements for women who want to remain in the workforce after having children, and support the progressive companies that are open to accommodating such requests when it is appropriate to do so. It may be possible for the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers of the world to thrive as working mothers in a male-dominated professional culture, and to them I say, good for you. But for most women, who have no desire to take on such an intensive professional challenge while raising children, there has to be a middle ground. Rather than requiring women to change in order to overcome the obstacles in their way, why don't we reexamine how corporate America can change in order to better utilize its female talent? Women still continue to earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Is that caused by the direction in which women are leaning? Or is there a larger cultural problem that needs to be addressed?
I do not disagree with everything in Sandberg's book. But I do take exception with the premise that the definition of professional success is tied to more leadership, more responsibility, more power, and more money. I have a different premise. I believe that professional success looks different for all of us. In my mind, women achieve professional success not only when they arrive at the top of the corporate ladder, but when they are able to have the kind of jobs that enrich and enhance their lives. These jobs may not have the most sophisticated title, pay the highest salary, or position them on the fast-track for promotion. But these jobs may be the right jobs for some women. The "right" job will look different for everyone. We must stop adhering to this notion that success can only be achieved by having more. Instead, we must be thoughtful and make the choices that work for us as individuals, recognizing that the right choice may look different throughout our lifetime. Figure out what you want and go after that, without the pressure of anyone else's definition of success. Make the choice that works for you, and then lean in to that.