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Why "leaning in" is killing us.
I had an epiphany the other day. I was in the middle of marking up a memo on U.S. drone policy while simultaneously ordering a custom-decorated cake for my daughter’s sixth grade musical cast party and planning my remarks for a roundtable on women in national security.
Suddenly, it hit me: I hate Sheryl Sandberg.
It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t hate Sheryl Sandberg because she’s so rich, or because she’s the COO of Facebook, or because she has gleaming, meticulously coiffed hair. True, Facebook is the Internet equivalent of Shiva*, Destroyer of Worlds, and my own hair will never approach the glossy perfection of Sheryl Sandberg’s — but I can find it in my heart to overlook these things. And I have nothing against rich people, who sometimes fund my projects or buy me lunch at fancy restaurants. Rich people, I love you!
My hatred of Sheryl Sandberg is also nothing personal. I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg is a delightful person, and I’d love her, too, if I knew her and she bought me lunch at a fancy restaurant. In fact, she and I probably have some friends in common; we were college classmates, though I don’t remember if we ever actually met.
“Did we know Sheryl Sandberg?” I asked my friend Suzanne, who was also in my college class.
She gave me a funny look. “Well, I knew her. Don’t you know if you knew her?”
“I can’t remember,” I explained.
“If you knew her, you would remember,” said Suzanne. “She was one of those people you would definitely remember. I used to go to an aerobics class she taught.”
That explained it. Some college students, like my friend Suzanne, take aerobics classes. Some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes. Other college students, like myself, lie around the dorm reading novels. No wonder I can’t remember meeting Sheryl Sandberg in college! She was already busy leaning in. I was busy leaning back on my sofa, with a good book and a nice cup of cocoa.
This, of course, is also why I hate her. Sheryl, have you ever stopped to consider that all this “leaning in” is ruining life for the rest of us?
Long ago, before Sandberg’s book Lean In convinced me to change my ways, I had a life. I had friends. I had hobbies. I could generally be relied upon to remember my children’s names, though I sometimes skipped their adorable little preschool events to take naps and read novels. I had a job, too, of course, but I also took occasional vacations, knocked off work at a sensible hour and got eight hours of sleep each night.
Then I read Lean In and realized that I was self-sabotaging slacker.
I resolved to do better. I started stepping up at work: “I’ll handle both those complex and urgent projects,” I informed my colleagues, with just the right mix of confidence, assertiveness, and non-threatening feminine charm. “With a little creative, outside-the-box thinking, I can take care of both by tomorrow!” I stopped turning down invitations to speak at conferences in inconveniently far-off places. I accepted every media request. I promised to write articles and reports and books.
I leaned in to the other spheres of my life, too: I became a room parent at the children’s school, hosted the class potluck and the mother-daughter book club, and decided that my children would go to school each day with organic, homemade lunches packed in attractive, reusable, eco-friendly containers.
Just as Sandberg promised, the rewards of leaning in quickly became evident. My confident, assertive yet non-threatening feminine charm helped me rapidly expand both my business and social networks.
When I dropped the kids off at school, other mommies gazed upon me with approval, and asked me where I had purchased those adorable little lunch containers. “I handcrafted them from recycled tires!” I explained with a humble but authoritative laugh.
Older colleagues took me aside to tell me I was an up-and-comer and offer me plum assignments. Younger colleagues asked me to mentor them and join their Lean In Circles. Speaking engagements flowed my way, and rich people asked if they could buy me lunch. With my confident yet charmingly self-deprecating smile, I accepted all offers and invitations.
Soon, the rewards of leaning in doubled.
Then they quadrupled. Then they began to increase exponentially.
I leaned in some more. I ate protein bars and made important telephone calls during my morning commute. I stopped reading novels so I could write more articles and memos and make more handicrafts to contribute to the school auction. I put in extra hours at work. When I came home, I did radio interviews over Skype from my living room while supervising the children’s math homework.
And I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg.
Because, of course, I was miserable. I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in. Trapped! I wondered if foreign-policy punditry was just too much for me. I wondered if I should move to Santa Fe and open a small gallery specializing in handicrafts made from recycled tires. I wondered if my husband and kids would want to go with me.
But then — after my I-hate-Sheryl epiphany — I came to a bold new conclusion.
Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.
We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.
Here’s the thing: We’ve managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.
But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.
Why? Because unlike most men, women — particularly women with children — are still expected to work that “second shift” at home. Men today do more housework and childcare than men in their fathers’ generation, but women today still do far more housework and childcare than men.
And just as work has expanded to require employees’ round-the-clock attention, being a good mom has also started requiring ubiquity. Things were different in my own childhood, but today, parenting has become a full-time job: it requires attendance at an unending stream of birthday parties, school meetings, class performances, and soccer games, along with the procurement of tutors, classes, and enrichment activities, the arranging of play dates, the making of organic lunches, and the supervising of elaborate, labor-intensive homework projects than cannot be completed without extensive adult supervision.
Oh yes: By incredible coincidence, parenting was discovered to require the near-constant attention of at least one able-bodied adult at just about the same time women began to pour into the workforce in large numbers. Sorry ’bout that, girls!
It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them. And as long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and childcare, women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity. They’ll continue to do what too many talented women already do: Just as they’re on the verge of achieving workplace leadership positions, they’ll start dropping out.
The general American tendency to think that “more time at work” equals “better work” is exacerbated by the All Crisis All the Time culture of foreign policy. Global crisis never sleeps, and neither do the overworked staffers at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the White House. It’s little wonder that many of the gifted young female staffers who enter these workplaces hit a wall at some point, and come to the painful realization that work and family obligations aren’t always things you can simply “balance.” Often, these weights become too heavy. They can crush you.
As I wrote in a 2012 column on women in foreign policy and national security jobs, the 24/7 nature of global crisis is no excuse for workplace policies that crush people:
“The long hours and pervasive crisis atmosphere that characterize most foreign-policy workplaces aren’t signs that Very Important Work is being done by Very Important People — they’re just signs of poor management. Good managers, whether they supervise air-traffic controllers, auto workers, or the National Security Staff, recognize that human beings function best when they work in humane and flexible conditions….
It’s far from impossible to do this, even in the foreign-policy workplace. At the Pentagon, for instance, Michèle Flournoy, then defense undersecretary for policy, actively encouraged her staff to adopt flexible work schedules. Secure videoconferencing reduces the need for travel, and emerging technologies increasingly permit people who must work with classified information to do so remotely via smartphones and tablets, reducing the need for people to spend long hours at the office.”
And this isn’t just about women. Men — and our society more broadly — also suffer when both work and parenting are intensive, round-the-clock activities.
Back in the day, Henry Ford didn’t advocate the eight-hour day for his auto assembly line workers because he was a nice guy. He advocated the eight-hour day because research demonstrated that worker productivity cratered after more than eight hours. As the Washington Post‘s Brigid Schulte documents in her forthcoming book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, humans can only take so much for so long. When a workplace is full of employees who always lean in and never lean back, it’s full of employees who are exhausted, brittle, and incapable of showing much creativity or making good decisions.
Sometimes, overwork gets downright dangerous. We have tough legislation mandating adequate rest periods for truck drivers and airline pilots — not because we think they need their beauty sleep, but because when overtired drivers and pilots make mistakes, people can die. When did we come to believe that crucial national security decisions are best made by people too tired to think straight?
If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don’t suffer as much as women when they’re exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family. Whether it’s one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, “Enough!”
In 1929, Virginia Woolf issued a cri de coeur: How can women become poets and writers, she asked in her now-classic essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” when they have no money, no independence, no privacy and no space? “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” declared Woolf.
Other forms of creativity are no different. If we want to do more than just go through the motions, both love and work require a protected space in which creativity can flourish.
Today, most women can make money on their own and acquire rooms of their own — but they still get too little psychic space and too little time for the kind of unstructured, creative thinking so critical to any kind of success.
Perhaps the modern equivalent of Woolf’s “room of her own” is the right to stop “leaning in” all the time. There is, after all, much to be said for leaning out — for long lunches, afternoon naps, good books, and some nice, slow hours in the La-Z-Boy recliner.
But it takes a village to give every woman her own La-Z-Boy recliner. When women — or men — lean out alone, they end up getting eased out, or just dropping out in despair.
No, this has to be a movement.
Sheryl Sandberg can keep right on leaning in if it makes her happy, but here’s my new feminist manifesto — call it a Manifestus for the Rest of Us.
We need to fight for our right to lean out, and we need to do it together, girls. If we’re going to fight the culture of workplace ubiquity, and the parallel and equally-pernicious culture of intensive parenting, we need to do it together — and we need to bring our husbands and boyfriends and male colleagues along, too. They need to lean out in solidarity, for their own sake as well as ours.
Women of the world, recline!
Correction, Feb. 24, 2014: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Vishnu as the “Destroyer of Worlds.” In Hinduism, Vishnu is considered “the Preserver,” and Shiva “the Destroyer.” (Physicist Robert Oppenheimer said that when he saw the world’s first nuclear explosion, he thought of a verse from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, said, in Oppenheimer’s phrasing, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” — Chapter 11, Verse 32. In this limited sense, Vishnu has been linked to “Destroyer of Worlds.”) Return to reading.