Leaning On VS Leaning In

On the fallacy of the professional woman who has it all and the importance of the upgrade

A couple of months ago Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, released her book Lean In. To be honest, it didn’t initially catch my attention. It just didn’t make it on to my radar when it was first published…

Figure 1: The general composition of Dr. Isis’s radar.

What have since made it on to my radar are the numerous criticisms and reflections about her message. On Tuesday I read CNN contributor Michele Weldon’s post “For working moms, it’s about ‘and,’ not ‘or’”, written in reply to “Coveting Not a Corner Office, But Time at Home” by Catherine Rampell. Weldon writes:

But from this latest piece of work, you can gather it is not possible as a working parent to walk and chew gum at the same time… But I want to point out…that like so many women, I went to way more than six games, matches, tournaments or conferences a week for three sons who played baseball, basketball, soccer and football before each finally settled into wrestling. There were weeks with nine to 15 games and practices for three boys.

This kind of commentary scares the balls out of me and makes me really, really fearful of how many women are going to have Sandberg’s message delivered to them thusly…

As a professional woman, leaning in means pushing harder. Doing everything. Being everything to everyone and still finding enough reserve to wage war in the male-dominated STEM fields. But, lest I judge too harshly, I have to confess that I have been guilty of sending this message myself. In my career as a research scientist, I am invited to give a lot of talks. ~25 percent of those talks are about science. The rest are about being a scientist, especially being a scientist with a husband and two young children. Young women are still terrified that science and family are incompatible. In a lot of ways they are, but that’s largely because these women are given the worst possible advice - advice I am absolutely guilty of giving.
Figure 2: The message we sometimes send young women.

I was invited to give my first talk about professional issues to a group of undergraduate women a month after I had given birth to my first child. I agreed, on the condition that I be allowed to bring him with me. Serendipity dictated that my son got hungry as soon as it was my turn to talk. As a newly minted champion of the “work-life balance” bullshittery, I bared my breast, held my tiny son like a football, and let him nurse while I filled these ladies’ young minds with lies about how they could do it all. What an image I must have been. In my mid-twenties I was enthusiastic and full of hope that we could all have it all. That’s the delusion we sell as “work-life balance.”

Now, in my mid-thirties, I am so, so fucking tired of trying to lean in to have it all. And, most importantly, I really don’t want it all. There is no such thing as work-life balance. There’s the stuff I can get done in a day and the stuff I can’t and being a professional woman means constantly weighing the cost and benefit of completing or not completing something.

I’ve come to an acceptance over the last year that this image of the modern professional woman who is a shark at the office and Donna Reed with her family is a fallacy. It’s not sustainable. We have to be careful telling women to lean in. I think that what we should be telling them is to “Find your upgrades.”

About a year ago I was surfing around YouTube and saw this video. It really resonated with me. It made me think about how I had been trying to do so many things myself - to climb to the top alone. What I really needed was not to lean in harder or try to do more, but to surround myself with people who would make me better; to realize that no matter how amazing I was, I could always use an upgrade.

Around the same age that I was telling women they could have it all, I was also making the same mistake that many of us make in our twenties. I was seeing the women around me as a threat. Now, they’ve become the people that upgrade me the most. I’ve collected this gaggle of other women who support me professionally and serve as aunties to my children. An anthropologist, a pulmonologist,a teacher, a physiologist, a veterinary cardiologist, a sonographer. These are women who I can go to professionally. They are also women that I can lean on, and that can lean on each other, when we need help personally. These are women that made me realize that we’re all exhausted, having been fed the message that “balance” means doing it all. I’ll never forget the first time I realized how much these women would upgrade me. I was so exhausted from leaning in that I thought I would crack. One of them said to me, “You’re exhausted and you haven’t had time to exercise this week. Bring me your children and go for a run. Come back when you feel better.”

This is what we need to be teaching women. Build support networks. Figure out your priorities. What do you need to do versus what can you seek help for? Then, interlock your arms and lean together. When one gets weak, the others can prop her up.

For many of us, it takes a lot for this message to penetrate our cultural context. For part of my life, I lived in a very traditionally Latin home. I’ll never forget as a girl sitting down to dinner and my grandmother telling me gently, “No, mamita. Sirveles a tu papa y hermano.” (No,my darling. Serve your father and brother first.) Those messages of deference, service and self-sacrifice stuck with me. They also remind me that it’s important to appreciate that Sandberg’s advice comes from a position of resource and privilege. The women who need help and advice the most are young. These are women who are the potentially least liberated from these cultural mores and have the least access to financial resources.

But, these are the women who are the most essential to reach and simply telling them to “lean in” is not enough.

(To be continued…)

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