Lean in: But into What?

If you’ve opened a magazine, looked at a news site, or turned on the TV in the last year, you’ve probably seen Sheryl Sandberg. In her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead she did what bestselling authors tend to do: identified something in the zeitgeist, pulled together familiar ideas into a coherent story, and added a dash of personal experience. Regardless of what you think of her ideas – she got people talking because she gave voice to something that many people care about and have a perspective to share.

The notion of leaning in inspired a story on CNN about leaning out, or rather leaning in but leaning into family (or something else) instead of work. Ms. Sandberg’s book focuses on women leaning into their careers, in part because that is something she values and has experience with, but she acknowledges there are a lot of other options for leaning in. She’s not speaking to or for all women. There are a lot of women in the world (roughly 2.5 billion), and plenty in the U.S. (roughly 160 million). One perspective, one approach, one of anything – isn’t going to fit all.

People need more options, and organizations need diverse talent in order to navigate a more global and complex landscape. I was in a conversation with someone recently who suggested that the reason there are not more women in senior leadership roles was that they opt out. The notion was that it was simply a matter of choice on the part of the women and that there was no need for organizations to make any changes.  It isn’t that simple. There is something much deeper working. We need to examine why women (and frankly a lot of men too) are opting out and what they are taking with them when they leave.  I firmly believe we are in the middle of two tsunami-sized shifts: changing work and changing families. We need to ask ourselves (and each other) what we need to do differently in order to support healthy people and families AND productive as well as sustainable work environments.  One can’t happen without the other.

The social pressure tends to be for men to be work-focused and for women to be family-focused (you can read one perspective on this at: http://pandodaily.com/2013/07/23/for-men-leaning-out-just-isnt-an-option/). And either can pay a social price for doing things differently. One of the problems with the more traditional mindset of men focusing on career and women focusing on family is that financial pressures, family structures, changes in mindsets, and the nature of work itself calls for more of an all in approach. For increasing numbers of people, the traditional options either aren’t options that work for them or aren’t options that are even available to them. So, what does the path ahead look like and what changes do we need to make to get there?

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About Kelly Hannum

Kelly is the Director of the Global Research Insights group at the Center for Creative Leadership® and a visiting faculty member at the IESEG School of Management in France. Since joining CCL® in 1993 she has managed a variety of research, evaluation, and assessment related projects. Kelly received her Ph.D. in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro . She is also the recipient of the Marcia Guttentag Award from the American Evaluation Association and Young Alumni Awards from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Guilford College.
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One Response to Lean in: But into What?

  1. avatar Foxy says:

    Fabulous post Kelly. As a mew mom, struggling to manage the chaos of work and home, I have a newfound interest in the discussions about Leaning In or being Maxed Out.

    You say it SO perfectly when you say : “We need to examine why women (and frankly a lot of men too) are opting out and what they are taking with them when they leave… We need to ask ourselves (and each other) what we need to do differently in order to support healthy people and families AND productive as well as sustainable work environments. One can’t happen without the other.”

    I think that there are some well documented answers to those questions… paid maternity/paternity leave, part-time career paths work, flexible schedules, telecommute options, quality affordable childcare…. I could go on and on. Even WITH all of these things, which I am so very incredibly lucky to have, it is HARD to be a parent who works outside the home. I wonder everyday how my friends and colleagues who don’t share the level of support that I have manage to function.

    We can do better. We must do better. Thank you for raising the discussion – which is most definitely a first step towards solutions.

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