Lean In? No thanks. I'd Rather Lean On.

So, if we are going to create a rallying cry or even just a catch phrase around modern woman work/family empowerment, I would vote for "lean" instead of "lean."
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shot of a busy working mom...
shot of a busy working mom...

I won't say Sheryl Sandberg's newly-released book and self-described social movement, Lean In, doesn't have something in it for ambitious young women looking for tips on getting ahead in corporate America. There is a frank discussion of the biased ways women are perceived in the workplace and a prescription for what to do about it. I was initially a bit baffled by the controversy and the angry reaction it's evoked. Far from being a feminist battle cry, her website is full of corporate speak about how to "project power," "create a high performance team," and "use your voice and read the room." It's like a slightly slicker, but at the same time weirdly more Kumbaya, version of any one of "women in leadership" seminars I've taken in my own career.

What I do object to is the term "Lean In." ("Lean smarter" would probably be a better description, but it doesn't zing the same way.) When I think of "leaning in," I picture pushing my shoulders into something nearly immovable. I picture linebackers thrusting their considerable weight into those padded practice walls. I picture effort, sweat and sore muscles. It's an irritating drill sargent-y phrase, like your aerobics instructor is yelling at you to try harder.

And the idea that we should "try harder" as women to break down glass ceilings or balance a career and family is clearly what's rankling.

The thing is, balancing work and family and relationships is often a zero-sum game. It's a big mushy ball of meals to cook, bills to pay, dishes to clean and children raise into people you hope will not be psychopaths. So, unless you have gobs of money to throw at maids, cooks and nannies, if you "lean in" to one thing, another one of those things is going to pop out the other end and demand attention.

And if both partners are "leaning in" to their careers at the same time, the domestic mush ball will probably explode. It's basic math.

So, if we are going to create a rallying cry or even just a catch phrase around modern woman work/family empowerment, I would vote for "lean on" instead of "lean in." I think I could best "pursue my ambitions" and make a productive contribution to the workplace if I could "lean on..."

  • Paid maternity leave long enough for mom's emotional and physical scars to heal, maybe even long enough for baby's nervous system to develop from blob-like to human;
  • Part-time and flexible work, to see women motivated and productive through the early years of child-rearing;
  • Leaders of organizations taking advantage of their own family friendly policies, to send the message that it's not a career liability to do so;
  • Partners who are empowered to take time off and motivated to help around the house;
  • Workplace accommodations for breast-feeding mothers;
  • Three little words that could be the biggest game changer of all: affordable quality childcare.

This is not a pipe dream. Other countries manage to allow women civilized maternity leave, flex time and subsidize child care without their economies falling to pieces. France heavily subsidizes child care, allowing an astounding 80% of it's women to work (compared to just under 60% in the U.S).. Even stateside, Google saw the business sense in providing longer paid maternity leave. It lengthened maternity leave to five months from three and changed it from partial pay to full pay, resulting a decrease in attrition for postpartum women by a full 50 percent.

None of this is new. These are benefits we keep frighting for, but we keep losing the battle. I almost rolled my eyes at myself when I wrote my "lean on" list. The context here is so difficult. We ask for more, but are given a resounding "no!" by the business cycle-obsessed zeitgeist, held hostage by fear of making a dent in our globally dominating economy, fear of the Socialism boogeyman, or fear, perhaps, of tipping the balance of power more towards the feminine.

Perfect example: After a big push by work/family balance advocates, what we got was 12 weeks of guaranteed UNPAID leave, and only if you're lucky enough to work for a company with more than 50 employees, keeping our status as the one and only high-income country to offer no guaranteed paid leave for new mothers. But does that mean we should shut up and stop asking? I think even Sandberg might say, "No! Lean in to asking for more!"

Still, it's a tough and long-fought battle, and maybe that's why Sandberg wanted to focus on something more solidly under our control, like trying to be less apologetic about our success, more savvy in how we communicate and working harder before we have children. But if our goal is to give more women more choice and more opportunities for success, which, by the way, is a net WIN for the economy, I think we should harness our social movements in a slightly different direction. Lets not be afraid to ask for something to lean on, so that we can do our part to lift up both our children and our country.

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