Beyond leaning in: a review of “The Orange Line”

You should leave work and go to yoga at 6pm. But you’ll probably get paid less.

I confess to having spent so much of my career leaning-in that I now need to lie down.I can’t quite buy in to the notion of “having it all” as a benchmark for success. And since my only obligations to people under 18 comprise sending mothers’ and fathers’ day greetings to their parents, my version of work-life balance is “got some yoga in this week”.

And yet I found myself nodding appreciatively (and furiously underlining relevant sections) as I read The Orange Line, co-authored by Jodi Ecker Detjen, Michelle A. Waters, and Kelly Watson. (Detjen sent me a complimentary review copy of the book).

Where does “The Orange Line” fit into the Sandberg/Slaughter universe?

The Orange Line is hybrid of Sheryl Sandberg’s, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s and Cali Williams Yost’s takes on “the answer”, where the question is some variation of, “how do I overachieve in every aspect of my life without burning out ?”.

Both women describe a universe in which women are go-getting professionals in a corporate environment, motivated, ambitious, college-educated, straight-and-aiming-for-a-husband-and-2.5-kids.

“The Orange Line” makes similar assumptions:

  1. Its target audience is likely to want or have children in a heteronormative context
  2. These women are pursuing careers that allow some kind of remote working / “taking the job with you” via email and conference call

And given the additional sample bias toward college-educated white women, its scenarios and recommendations are far from universally applicable.

Like Sandberg, the authors of “The Orange Line” place the responsibility for a woman’s success squarely on her own shoulders. Like Slaughter, they acknowledge that the universes within which women operate are not always conducive to solving the overachieving/not burning out equation.

For instance, they note that for the 118 (college-educated and overwhelmingly white) women they interviewed for the book:

“while organizations may have offered a hostile environment, it was actually the women who held themselves and each other back.”

Cali Williams Yost is less well-known than either of Sandberg or Slaughter; her “answer” involves consigning the idea of work-life balance to the dustbin of history and replacing it with the notion of “fit”. Semantics aside, Yost advocates what she calls “tweaks” — “small, consistent, everyday changes” rather than “big, disruptive, scary transformations”.

How “The Orange Line” encourages women to move beyond their liming beliefs aligns quite seamlessly with Yost’s incremental-change approach.

The Orange Line’s “proposed whole life”

“The Orange Line” valorizes a career trajectory that allows this “integrated life track”, in which “people place themselves, nor their work or family, at the center of their life choices”.

This approach is contrasted with what the authors describe as “The Green Line”, which is all about maximizing one’s career at the expense of self and family, and “The Red Line”, which veers toward “opting-out”.

The Feminine Filter

According to the authors, the belief system the causes women to hold themselves and others back is “The Feminine Filter”, “a specific set of ideals and rules…built over the course of lifetimes to define the idealized woman.”

Archetypes of this idealized woman include, “Martha Stewart, HP’s Meg Whitman, Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer, Disney’s Amy Duncan, and even Barbie”.

The Orange Line argues that this filter and those archetypes “consistently and unconsciously” result in women defining themselves according to whether they’ve succeeded at:

Doing it all
Looking Good
Being Nice

Each of these requirements leads to certain types of bad habits. For example, the need to “be nice” might lead women to lower their career expectations or decline to negotiate for a higher salary. “Doing it all” requires a constant state of “acquiescence and self-sacrifice”, while the tyranny of “looking good” results in what the authors call “catastrophizing”, or the belief that one missed typo in a 20-page report will result in career death.

Green Starts and Mid-Career Transitions

The book is organized into stages, designed to cover women of different ages and at different places in their lives and careers.The stages range from entry-level, or “green start” to “approaching burnout”, “family matters”, “sabbatical”, “re-entry”, and “mid-career transition”.

Where the “green start” section covers issues facing women aged 20-35, “mid-career transition” offers advice for women in the 40-60 demographic. This make “The Orange Line” feel accessible to a more diverse audience than say “Lean In”, which has inspired a generation of Millennial women to (if nothing else) negotiate for better pay.

Should I buy the book?

More than once I found myself highlighting paragraphs that could have been taken verbatim from periods of my life. This one from the “approaching burnout” section particularly resonated:

“women are in a crunch because of guilt. They are afraid to be caught eating, exercising or even stepping outside for a break. They think people will judge them, so they keep going.”

Fortunately, “The Orange Line” offers advice and how-to’s that are overwhelmingly practical and quite sane:

“you need to ask yourself, “How will those people judge me when I break down mentally or physically because I didn’t take care of myself? Will I be seen as a better manager then?”

The authors are refreshingly honest about the consequences for these women of pursuing an “orange line” life, one that attempts to integrate career, life and family by placing one’s self at the center:

“While The Orange Line executive may not end up as powerful or wealthy as The Green Line executive [who has put her career first], she will feel more fulfilled and still lead, set policy, and influence others.”

This is one of those books I will be buying for friends, family and various #awesomewomen in my life as a down-to-earth (but still ambitious) alternative to the “run the world” corporatism of “Lean In”.