In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published what was to be a revolutionary book: ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’. The book teems with arresting ideas meant to empower high-achieving, professional women. The running theme of the book is that it’s up to women to be confident in their abilities and accomplishments, to embrace ambition, to build a career alongside a healthy family life and join the conversation even in male-dominated workplaces without hesitation–this is all to say, to take a seat at the table, invited or not, and lean in.
Alongside the book, Sandberg also manages a nonprofit organization fittingly called LeanIn.org, which follows closely the principles of the book through their mission: ‘to help women achieve their ambitions and work to create an equal world.’
By helping women reach their loftiest of goals through education and encouragement, woman alone will save the world. Because sure, let’s add that to the to-do list!
As we move into the next decade, it’s hard to understand what leaning in has actually done for us.
Sure, we can get excited that women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men, but they have actually been doing this since 1982. In fact, women have completed more master’s degrees than men since 1987 and more doctorate degrees than men since 2006.
Despite leaning in and expertly crafting ourselves into superwomen, managing ambition, family expectations, motherhood and marriage all in a single bound, we’re more educated and working more hours for less recognition than ever.
Let’s take a closer look.
What is ‘leaning in’ anyway?
On the surface, the concept of leaning in is well-meaning, poetic even. The words themselves invoke not only a call to action but also a demand for togetherness, even in the pursuit of personal growth. Often when women are encouraged to strive for their best, they are told to climb up, as high as they can go, to never look down.
To lean in is to acknowledge that there is something larger to be part of, to contribute to, to lead, with no urge to fade into the backdrop.
But in practice, how does the act of leaning in fare?
Michelle Obama famously spoke out against Sandberg’s approach in 2018 when interviewed for her book tour at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. The former First Lady had much to say about marriage, work, and equality for women. Most notable, however, was her pointed criticism of Sandberg’s seemingly resolute philosophy.
“It’s not always enough to lean in,” Obama said, “because that [stuff] doesn’t work all the time.” Obama specifically highlighted the idea of “having it all”–the fulfilling career, the thriving children, the happy spouse–and how as wonderful as this sounds, it is just not always realistic.
And yet, Sandberg in her book had thoroughly romanticized this frantic need to juggle.
So, exactly where does the lean in mantra fall apart at the seams?
When Leaning In Is Not Enough
Upon the book’s release, many women embraced all that Sandberg had to say. In fact, Prominent journalist Katherine Goldstein was so inspired by Sandberg’s words that she invited a group of equally wide-eyed women to practice the various Lean In tenets with her.
Although they generally fell within the same age range (late 20s to 30s), the members of Goldstein’s group varied wildly in terms of ultimate goals. Many sought higher positions within their current companies or fields, but others hoped to switch jobs entirely. After several months of the program, several of the women received raises at work–after choosing to take a stand and asking for them, just as Sandberg would advocate.
Then, in 2015, something incredibly life-changing happened to Goldstein: she gave birth to her son. At the time, Goldstein was enjoying her first year in the highest-paying position she had ever held. While she cared deeply about the job, she also had to attend to her newborn son, who suffered from some health complications.
She cited worrying that her devotion to her motherhood would be read by her colleagues as a lack of drive.
Goldstein returned from her maternity leave ready to take the reins of her career once more. Unfortunately, she eventually lost the job. Suddenly, her own illusion of “having it all” had been destroyed.
Why It’s Okay to Get Up from the Table
Katherine Goldstein’s anecdote of leaning in and still coming up short illustrates exactly why the concept, while noble and well-intentioned, can do more harm than good to even the most talented, ambitious women.
Fortunately for Goldstein, she has ultimately ended up where she is meant to be, working as a prolific independent journalist who is “much more interested in judging my own successes in terms of personal fulfillment and positive impact on the world, rather than a fancy title and a big salary.”
By surrendering the perceived need to achieve impeccable balance both professionally and personally, she was able to instead pursue her own idea of “all.” In doing so, she escaped one of the biggest threats to even the strongest, high-achieving woman’s career..
According to psychologist Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, burnout occurs when a person is “no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level.” It is important to note that burnout does not happen suddenly. Some women flourish for years in their careers, beginning each day confident and excited to effect some change in the world.
But then, the routine plods on, day in and day out. The children grow older and more demanding. Before long, a nagging voice emerges, demanding more. So these women achieve more–only more does not cure the problem. It simply bleeds into the old routine until eventually, it all appears the same.
In ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg states that women are more susceptible to that impenetrable impostor syndrome than are men. They also are much more likely to brush off any recognition of their talents, sometimes chalking their success up to things like luck. Moreover, according to Sandberg, women are much more likely to assert themselves, even when they make compelling cases.
Sandberg’s suggestion for this problem sounds eloquent and simple enough: simply get up and “sit at the table.” Fight for that high-profile job, even if you feel you might not have the ideal credentials. Offer to lead the group, even if everyone seems to balk at the mere suggestion. Again, on the surface, none of these are terrible suggestions. If a woman aspires to be a leader, she has every right to pursue that goal.
The problem arises when women are led to believe that reaching higher and higher should always be the goal–that anything less is settling.
Additionally, proposing that sitting at the table is the only strategy for success suggests that the workplace runs solely on merit.
A woman might do “everything right” not because she wants to, not because she knows it is the best move for her, but because she believes that more sacrifices buy her greater rewards. When those rewards never come, she feels defeated, lied to even.
Have you ever felt resentful of your work load despite bring it all on yourself?
What may have begun as a rush to overcome that imposter syndrome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Burned out and overwhelmed, you become incapable of performing the role that you convinced yourself you couldn’t do in the first place.
Had the progression occurred as part of a strategic rise rather than a race to the top, chances are you would have excelled.
If we don’t lean in, then what?
Ok. So leaning in isn’t working for us.
We don’t know what we want, but we want it now, and we’re pushing for the sake of it.
We’re lacking clarity and community.
We’re tired of treading water.
So what can we do instead:
Know the signs of burnout
First and foremost, let’s take a moment to check in and see where you are right now. How has your emotional state been lately? How are your energy levels?
Take a look at these signs of burnout. Do any of these sound familiar?
Signs of exhaustion such as chronic fatigue or insomnia
Can’t stay awake? Can’t fall asleep? Chronic sleep issues are your first indicator that you’re overdoing it and are the biggest continuing contributor to ongoing burnout as you cycle through lack of sleep and oversleeping.
Impaired function at work
How’s your focus? Are you forgetful lately? Swimming through brain fog? How can you be relied upon to make effective decisions when you can’t keep a straight thought?
Are you getting sick more often than usual? This can be a clear sign of burnout as your immune system wears down.
Constant irritability is a tell-tale sign, but what happens as this grows into anger and resentment? Consider the impact this can have in professional situations and even in your personal relationships.
Are you isolating yourself? Not making time for or enjoying the things you used to love? Not only are these signs of burnout but can also be a sign of depression. It’s important to recognise the signs of burnout so you can act swiftly to self-correct before they become bigger problems.
So, how did you go?
Would you consider yourself on the edge of burnout?
You’re not alone. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burnt out sometimes. No one is immune from burnout, but it’s up to you how you manage it.
Focus on quality not quantity
The myth that more time working means better work has become a ridiculous measure of productivity that yields sloppy results. Hustle culture and the lean in epidemic means we are working far more hours than ever but, what impact does this actually have on results? When we prioritize quality outcomes generated from a restful and clear place over rushed decisions, we can enjoy measured growth that is, above all, sustainable.
Hustle culture can no longer be the prerequisite for female success.
Consider the entirety of your life
Take a moment to consider what your personal values are. List out what you consider to be the most vital areas of your life; Work, Intimate Relationships, Family, Spirituality or Religion and Health. Assign each of these areas a number out of 10 of the importance you currently give it in your life. 10 would be the most importance. 1 would be giving it zero attention. Work can be one area of your life, but not all of it.
Now that you have seen which areas of your life you give the most time to currently. Do the exercise again but this time assign the number out of 10 corresponding to the level of priority you’d like to give it.
Then outline three steps you could take to move you from where you are now to where you want to be.
An example of this might look like:
Current attention: 3
Desired attention: 7
Steps to get there:
Attend church every second Sunday
Write three things I’m grateful for each morning
Meditate or pray for 10 minutes per day
Or Intimate Relationships
Current attention: 1
Desired attention: 9
Steps to get there:
Have a dedicated date night every week where I am fully present
Show up as my best self to events, open to the possibility of meeting someone worthy of me
Set clear business/home boundaries so home means home, work means work. Discuss these boundaries with your significant other and get on the same page.
When we take a big picture look at our life, we soon realise work is merely one piece of a much larger puzzle.
Focus on essentialism
If we allow it to, our to-do list can grow out of control in the blink of an eye. When we consider what is essential vs. what is expected we can quickly discern what needs to be done now vs what can be scheduled, delegated or done away with completely.
Share the load
Isolation in both entrepreneurship and the workplace are a leading cause of depression and anxiety. Multiply this by the issues facing women in STEM, such as as often being the only woman in their male dominated departments, it may feel as though you’re carrying the weight of women everywhere on your shoulders. After all, Sandberg says it’s up to us to fix it all, right?
Don’t do it alone. Find a community of like-minded women who understand your struggles and can show you what normal looks like. Loneliness is the worst measure of what your workload should look like.
Don’t have a community? Join ours!
Lean back – Then Create a Strategic Plan to Rise
Leaning in doesn’t work, so it’s time to consider the alternative. Lean back, take a moment and take stock.
It’s time for you to consider your own ambitions and you’re current level of commitments. Are you tired of waiting for things to change? Are you truly doing what your heart desires on your terms, or just going pushing for the sake of it. Tell us in the comments!
About Dr. Toni A. Haley
Toni A. Haley, MD is a bestselling author, speaker and certified executive coach for high performing women. She is also the founder of Soar to ExcellenceTM Coaching. Dr. Toni is sought after by clients for her 25 years of experience in healthcare, wellness and finance. Her proven strategies have helped hundreds of women break through personal and professional barriers, such as Martyr MindsetTM, Perfectionism, and Imposter Syndrome. Dr. Toni has committed her career to empowering others to achieve greater prosperity and fulfillment beyond success.