Can women afford to lean out instead of leaning in?

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I’ve already shared some of my issues with the Lean In brand of feminism promoted by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy (whose work on drones I greatly admire) has a new piece arguing that leaning in too much is unhealthy for women:

Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.

We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.

Here’s the thing: We’ve managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.

But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.

Why? Because unlike most men, women — particularly women with children — are still expected to work that “second shift” at home. Men today do more housework and childcare than men in their fathers’ generation, but women today still do far more housework and childcare than men.

Few people would dispute that we are overworked and could all benefit from pulling back and putting things in perspective. Brooks acknowledges that this is a problem with our culture as a whole, but as she points out, there are additional expectations foisted upon women that can make the expectations doubly difficult.

But can women who want to be successful afford to make this move without a broader cultural shift? The idea behind the lean in concept is that women back off of advancement opportunities because of obligations in their lives. Whether people buy into that formulation, there is a nagging sense for many women that they have to prove themselves. We’ve all heard of women (or members of other marginalized groups) who see the solution to discrimination as working twice as hard and showing they are twice as good to get ahead. Women shouldn’t have to feel that way, but it’s not uncommon that they will.

I was once in a position where I supervised two women and one man who all did essentially the same job. The two women were doing it better than the man was, but facts, numbers, and insistence on their superlative leadership often couldn’t get the women to accept the fact that they were meeting and exceeding expectations. The man, on the other hand, couldn’t get it through his head that he should be doing things differently despite the evidence. It’s so indicative of the cultural influences on women’s leadership that it sounds like a hypothetical example, but I struggled with it as a manager every day. Are women who work in a sexist culture, and are conditioned to question their own leadership, going to feel comfortable stepping back and readjusting their work/life balance?

Brooks points out that this issue is particularly relevant in the foreign policy world, where people are constantly in crisis mode. She makes the point that should be obvious but often gets obscured, that “more time at work” doesn’t necessarily translate into “better work.” This is also an issue that can plague organizers and activists. There’s a general feeling in the nonprofit world that if you’re not working crazy hours, you’re not working hard enough. The fate of the world is at stake! We care passionately about creating social change, and don’t want to neglect our important mission. That culture can be even more challenging for women trying to advance in a workplace that can be just as sexist as others outside the progressive political world.

As Maya Dusenbury points out at Feministing, Brooks’s approach suffers from the one similar shortcoming as Lean In in that it doesn’t address any structural issues holding women back. But it’s a good conversation to have about having a holistic, healthy way of achieving our goals in and out of the workplace. I hope we get to a point where women can feel comfortable leaning out more and still advance in their careers as they should.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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