Standing Upright: Stop Asking Me to Lean In
Women in their 30's and 40's are tired. According to results from CDC research, between 2010 and 2011, 15% of women reported they often felt very tired or exhausted, while only 10% of men confessed to the same. In addition, the National Sleep Foundation revealed that more than half of American women (60%) only get a good night’s sleep a few nights per week and sleep is problematic for 67% of them. Women aren’t just physically tired; we are mentally wiped out too.
Personally, I am mentally tired because everyone keeps asking the question: “Can women have it all?” For the past year and counting, it’s been on everyone’s lips. It started with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s mega-viral Atlantic piece and has only become more pronounced with the advent of Sheryl Sandberg’s wildly popular book, Lean In. New York Magazine’s coverage of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer just exaggerated the point. And then there was the Oprah article, where the TV mogul opened up about not wanting children, further chipping away at the impossible standard of “having it all.”
Enough already! I’d like to shut down the debate all together. I mean, imagine asking men whether they can “have it all.” It seems absurd, right? We are asking whether some of the most powerful women can have it all— like what they have achieved is not enough. When do we even know when we have it all? Can we all get over the trying to outwork everyone and be all things to all people? Can we stop turning a blind eye to the larger system that is too demanding on all of us? Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the movie “I Don’t Know How She Does It” is a good example. She is not a role model, but a stereotype. I don’t want to be as messed-up and frenzied as she is. It’s okay to say no.
To be sure, Sandberg’s advice for women to assert themselves can be useful. Women deserve to have a seat at the table. After all, the Wall Street Journal reports women still earn only 76.5 for every man’s dollar. However, when I meet up with my smart, ambitious female colleagues and friends, we don’t sit around venting about how we need to take more risks, take on more in our job, or make more money. Rather, we talk about how busy and tired we already are. We try to be supportive of each other with where we are at in our work and home lives. It is actually wishing we were further along that makes us feel unhappy and bad about ourselves. Women who are driven don’t need more people telling us to network more. What if all of us felt confident about where we are right now and all that we have achieved to date? What if that felt like “having it all?” What if we made other women feel good about that as well? Now that could be a real women’s movement.
Leadership and ambition are processes. And processes take time. But folks like Sandberg don’t want to hear these “excuses” for not doing more. My colleagues and I don’t want to own all of the responsibility for not having it all, as she defines it. We want to feel heard and helped in the struggle. We definitely don’t want to feel more guilt than we already do. So maybe we should move from burdening women with one more thing to accepting ourselves and others. Instead of sending so many mixed messages about whether women should lean in or lean back, we should just help each other feel confident with where we are in the present moment, standing upright. So the next time you hear someone asking whether women can have it all, ask that person why she isn’t supporting other women for what they already have accomplished. After all, it took a lot of hard work and sleepless nights to get there. And we are tired.
Robin Selzer is an expert on women’s leadership. She has a PhD from Loyola University Chicago where she researched women’s issues, has been involved in both local and national women’s leadership training programs, and provides frequent keynote presentations in higher education on the topic.