Women Breadwinners & Sheryl Sandberg: The Problem With Leaning In

sheryl sandberg 2The debut of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In” has made a tremendous splash in the media.  It has everyone talking.  Although I haven’t read the book in full as of yet, I’ve watched many of Sheryl’s interview as well as her TED Talk that inspired the book.  At first glance, I love her message.  It’s empowering, inspiring, and exactly the catalyst for a dialogue about feminism and women’s rights that is long overdue.  But… when I dive in a little deeper and read the articles and points brought about by Sandberg’s critics, it leaves me with more questions than answers… and that, for women breadwinners, is a great thing.

For the woman breadwinner, the problem with leaning in isn’t simply that we are already doing that but that we have learned how to do it so well that far too many of us lean in, achieve a lot, and find ourselves just as unhappy as our mothers or grandmothers were in being stuck in the house raising kids.  So the question becomes: where’s the happy medium?  How do women breadwinners run the show, be present in the home, and still lean in?  And that’s where the problem with leaning in shows up…

Women breadwinners are a powerful group of women.  They know how to achieve.  They know how to produce results.  They know how to work hard.  So, in looking more deeply at the idea of “leaning in”, here are 3 problems I see for women breadwinners who are going to take Sheryl’s message to heart:

  1. Changing the meaning is more important than altering the message.  In her video clips, Sheryl talks about women who don’t own their success, who attribute their achievements to the support of others, luck, or hard work.  She talks about the fact that women need to own their success as fully as men do.  For the woman breadwinner, it’s not simply a matter of owning her success.  A woman can change how she speaks about her success but that doesn’t guarantee others’ approval of her ownership of that success.  More powerful than what she attributes success to is the direction women breadwinners leverage failure and rejection in.  In other words, owning success isn’t half as important as knowing what to do with the criticism, rejection, and disapproval of people in power who may turn a woman breadwinner down from a position she deserves, who may tell her that she’s not “right” for a position she knows she’s overqualified for, and who may steal her ideas and claim them as her own.  The true test of success is knowing how to leverage all of these negative experiences and take decisive action to get from where she is to where she wants to be.
  2. Sandberg’s message provides no roadmap for women who’ve made poor marriage and partnership choices.  Napolean Hill talked about the fact that one’s choice in a marriage partner is VITAL to building wealth and living a happy life.  Sandberg’s message on choosing the right partner is centuries old.  But what about the women breadwinners who’ve chosen partners who aren’t true partners?  Or those women breadwinners who are single mothers and don’t have partners?  Or those women breadwinners who have gotten so used to doing everything on their own that they’re now struggling to balance the power dynamic in their marriage and work through the troubles that led them to a place of overwhelm and disappointment?  Sandberg’s argument says “Choose a real partner” but provides no roadmap or suggestions on how to take corrective action if you did not do that.  Saying “a man who washes the dishes gets more sex” is not a practical tip for the woman breadwinner.
  3. The proof of success is pointed in the opposite direction of fulfillment and satisfaction for many women breadwinners.  In other words, leadership and ambition do not necessarily equal happiness.  Women may not be going after the C suite or the seat on the executive board not from a lack of ambition but from a deep inner knowing that the life that they want looks very different from the high adrenaline, long hours executive style life that exists at the top of the corporate ladder.  Kathy Ireland said it best: “Why take a seat at someone else’s table when you can own your own?”  Many women breadwinners are learning that they don’t have to sit at someone else’s table and they are learning how to own their own.

At the end of the day, Sheryl Sandberg’s message is vital… and flawed.  It’s for some and not for all.  The key is to take from it what empowers and question the rest.  The questions will draw from your inner knowing the answers only you can give…


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