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Working women respond to Sandberg's 'Lean In' revolution

Adrees Latif / Reuters

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, speaks during an interview in New York.

“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes,” writes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," a self-named “manifesto” for her proposed women’s revolution.  

As appealing as such a world may sound, some working women argue that it’s easier said than done. 

Nonsense, Sandberg says. Too many women are being overlooked for promotions due to lack of confidence and poor negotiation skills, not lack of opportunity. It has become the norm for women to sidestep advancement in order to focus on family responsibilities, she writes, and the result is a shocking imbalance of power on the workforce. 

Women still only hold 4 percent of top government posts worldwide, 14 percent of top corporate jobs and 17 percent of board seats, and those numbers haven’t budged over the past decade. With a skilled, college-educated female army out there, there is no reason men are still holding the keys the kingdom. 

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But any "revolution" is bound to draw its fair share of criticism, and this one is no exception. Sandberg, a Harvard-educated, über-power player and Facebook’s COO, is often derided for being out of touch with the challenges and frustrations of ordinary working women. Sandberg’s supporters counter, who better to lead a revolution? – and point out that she has been able to create a meaningful dialogue about the driving forces that define most women’s lives – a conversation that has not taken place on a national scale for quite a long time. 

“It’s hard to talk about women leaving the workforce without sounding like you’re criticizing the choices they’ve made. But by definition, if women aren’t out there making the laws, running the corporations, doing the research – if women aren’t engaged in professional life, they’re not having an impact,” says Kim Grahl, a physician and senior clinical educator at North Shore University Health System in Evanston, Ill.  “So how can you blame it on men when women have taken themselves out of the game?” 

Grahl, a mother of two, has kept her place in the workforce while raising her children. But she’s the first to admit that she has allowed her career to take a backseat to her husband’s. “I have a much less interesting career than my husband has. So yes, women are making our own choices but the problem is, sometimes we’re not given very good choices.” 

The fallacy, she says, shared by many women of her generation, was that it was possible to take time off to raise children and then jump back into the game. 

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“It’s like we were sold a bill of goods,” she says. “Jobs demand too much. It would be good if you could take 15 percent of your time to devote to family life – but this is a fantasy, right? The sheer volume of menial work that a mother has, I mean, you’re just exhausted. And then, all of a sudden you wake up and you’re 46.  And the train has gone by. And when it went by, you were in the basement doing laundry.” 

Suzanne Keller, an attorney at The Rachel Coalition, a nonprofit women’s organization in New Jersey, agrees that managing two high-powered careers along with a family can be next to impossible. 

“It’s very hard to accept that I was on a trajectory to be higher in my field than I am,” says Keller, a Harvard Law School graduate whose husband is the director of two Health and Human Rights programs at New York University. “I’m not out there in the way that I could have been if my husband’s job wasn’t so demanding. It’s very hard for two people have big careers.  It’s an incredible strain on a family.” 

Julie Martin, an attorney at Scott, Scriven and Wahoff, LLP in Columbus, Ohio, says she was able to “lean in” and make partner at her law firm because her husband was willing to “lean out.” 

“How I did it was by having a great spouse who took on 50 percent or more of the home responsibility,” she acknowledges. “My husband is a high school English teacher, so he’s home with the kids every summer and shares their schedule. He works the structured hours so I can work the crazy hours.” 

In fact, while most working women acknowledge the importance of a helpful partner, many said the single most important factor in successfully “leaning in” is a supportive employer.  For Laura Griffin, publications editor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, an understanding boss made it possible for her return to her job at a prominent Dallas newspaper after her first child was born.  

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“My boss made it easy for me to come back from maternity leave,” she says. “He gave me a sizable raise before I left, let me come back at 30 hours a week and made sure I still had worthwhile assignments. He knew that I needed a compelling reason to 'lean in' to my job when I had the tug of a baby at home.” 

Martin concurs that a family-friendly employer can make the difference between a working mom and a stay-at-home mom. 

“I was fortunate to have an employer who allowed me to work flexible hours,” she says. “It was a flex-time thing, no questions asked: an exchange of office hours for family time.” 

“We don’t live in a culture where anyone can 'lean into' the home and not expect to take a hit on their career,” Keller says. “Sheryl Sandberg’s telling people to lean in or lean out when she should be talking about the culture of business. For instance, why is Yahoo taking away telecommuting? That’s been something that’s been really helpful to women.” 

Mwezi Pugh, a sixth-grade literacy teacher in the New York City public school system, says the work environment at many large corporations, particularly within the competitive financial sector, tends to be female unfriendly. 

“Before I became a teacher I worked for Morgan Stanley, and I could see that my female boss had to work twice as hard as the men in that male-dominated industry,” she says. “I feel like there’s still an 'old boys network' at those places. Men are given extended opportunities to socialize and work their way up, such as going for drinks at a bar or going to a game.  Women are less likely to be asked along in those situations. And even if they went, they’d be the only woman there.” 

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Because the balance of work and family can be so fragile, many women say a difficult boss or a hostile work environment can be enough to derail her career -- or at least change the course of it. 

“When I was pregnant with my second child, I got a new boss who resented my maternity leave and my shorter work week,” recalls Griffin of her days at the newspaper.  “She gave me assignments no one else wanted to work on.  It wasn't long before I decided that giving up my time with my children for that job wasn't worth it.” 

Griffin eventually moved to the East Coast and later, found work as an editor.  

“If I had leaned into my job when my kids were little, I have no doubt I'd now be at a very different place in my career,” she says.  “But I think I would have missed a lot, too.  No matter what you do as a woman, it seems you feel guilty.  So I guess I leaned in toward my kids.”