Don’t Lean In

For too long, women have used masculine leadership styles to succeed in business. This may have boosted our careers, but what has it done for our wellbeing and our families? Now is the time to rethink how we want to earn a seat at the table, says Luciana Bellini

For working women the world over, there are few phrases better known – or more controversial – than ‘lean in’. It was coined by Sheryl Sandberg, the soon-to-be ex-chief operating officer of Meta Platforms (owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), and was the title of her 2013 book, which typified the ‘girlboss feminism’ that swept through the decade. Women in the workplace, she wrote, could smash glass ceilings and climb to the top of the career ladder if they would ‘lean in’ and show grit and determination – in other words, if they would work like men.

At first, Lean In was hailed as a bible for women looking to get ahead. But it soon became clear that working as hard as possible – to the inevitable detriment of our home lives, relationships and physical and mental health – did nothing to further our careers. All it did was put us on a guaranteed path to burnout.

The fact is you can’t ‘have it all’. If you push yourself to the brink in your career, chances are you’ll let the ball drop in other areas of your life. This is doubly true if you’re a working mother, whose life is characterised by another two-word slogan: ‘the juggle’. The past twenty years have been typified by an attitude that said you had to work harder, be busier, do more and more, in a seemingly never-ending quest to look as productive as possible. Being busy, almost to breaking point, and working yourself to the bone are fundamentally tied to success. Ludicrously hectic schedules have become a badge of honour. But whose yardstick is this?

One of the main criticisms of Sandberg’s book is that she completely ignored the structural barriers faced by women, particularly poor women and single mothers. She was writing as a cog high in a patriarchal system not designed for women. ‘The disparity of female representation in leadership is not an issue of “leaning in”,’ says Kate Northrup in her book Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time and Energy Management for Ambitious Women. ‘Many look at the statistics around women leaving the workplace and think it’s caused by a lack of assertiveness, direction, mentorship and basically getting in there and getting what we want. These » people are completely missing the bigger picture: the systems were created by men for men.’

If you’re a woman, the system is rigged. It is not designed to allow women to live full, well-rounded lives: ones that incorporate our needs as mothers, wives, lovers, friends or even humans. As Northrup notes, ‘We are animals. We are nature. Yet we live and work as if we’re not.’ She likens the way that we work to a crop that is forced to be in perpetual harvest – eventually, the crop will falter and die. As humans, we are part of the earth and, just like crops, our bodies operate in cycles. This is particularly true for women: when we live away from artificial light, our monthly cycles automatically sync with lunar cycles, bleeding at the new moon and ovulating at the full moon. We cannot ignore our connection to nature – yet that is what we ask our bodies to do on an almost daily basis.

And there’s an extra sting in the tail: the way we push ourselves to breaking point is often perpetuated by no one other than ourselves, as part of a futile bid to prove we can keep up in a male-dominated world. After centuries of subjugation, in which women have been told that their lives, bodies and minds are not as valuable as men’s, ‘girlboss feminism’ has created a way for us to destroy ourselves that is entirely of our own making.

‘Women’s empowerment has been hijacked by the patriarchal over-culture and become about giving a woman the “opportunity” to burn herself out by working harder and doing more…’ writes Valerie Rein in her book Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Inner Barrier to Women’s Happiness and Fulfillment. ‘They used to burn us at the stake – now they just hand us the torches.’

How many of us can relate to the tale of the frazzled working mother who fantasises about falling down stairs and suffering from a minor-but-hospitalisation-worthy injury, just so she can lie in bed for a week and have someone else look after her? Working yourself to the brink of exhaustion or collapse is something that has become almost celebrated; karoshi, a Japanese word that translates as ‘death by overwork’, has emerged to accompany it.
It is not hard to see how absurd and unsustainable this is. And yet many of us partake in it every day. ‘High-achieving women keep pushing until we break, until we’re stopped dead in our tracks by crises in our health, work or relationships,’ writes Rein. ‘Only when we’re up against a wall do we finally see the prison we’re in.’

A major issue is how notions of success and busyness affect women’s feelings of worth. ‘I thought that productivity was what made us valuable,’ admits Northrup. ‘“Look at what I’ve done, and I’ll show you how much I’m worth.”’ To find our own path to success, this is something we urgently need to address and change.

The way we operate in the working world is closely linked to our own confidence, particularly in the case of mothers returning after having a baby. ‘A common barrier for mothers in terms of establishing a new career path is confidence,’ writes Annie Ridout in her book The Freelance Mum: A Flexible Career Guide for Better Work-Life Balance. ‘Many of us find ourselves questioning our identity after giving birth.’

And for many women, there comes a moment when you have to choose between parenthood and a high-flying career. The stats speak for themselves: in the UK, forty-five per cent of female MPs are » childless, compared with just twenty-eight per cent of men. In America, thirty-three per cent of women in high-flying careers in the 41-55 age bracket are childless, and that figure rises to forty-two per cent in corporate America.

When we discuss the gender pay gap, what we are often really talking about is the motherhood pay gap. As Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, noted in a recent article: ‘Female workers in their twenties outearn their male colleagues right up until they have their first child, at which point mums are faced with the practical problem of juggling work and childcare, and the emotional problem of maternal guilt.’ Suddenly, climbing the corporate ladder is no longer your main priority – that has now shifted to trying to figure out the most affordable childcare options, or tackling the mountain of laundry at home, or planning the week’s meals, or sorting out who’s going to be doing drop off and pick up that day. The work of the home is not glamorous or high stakes – more often than not, it is completely invisible and thankless – but it is just as necessary as the work of the office, if not more so. And it’s not something that can be addressed by ‘leaning in’.

So how do we fix this? How to do we learn to own our own power in the workplace?

It begins with understanding that there is no such thing as the perfect work-life balance. ‘We must question our beliefs that work is separate from “life” and that the only way to be valuable is to do more and more,’ notes Northrup. We must be brave enough to use our own way of working to our advantage, and not be afraid to eschew traditionally masculine traits by embracing our inherently feminine ones.

This is the central theme of female footballer Alex Scott’s new book, How (Not) To Be Strong. She discusses how she rose to the top of her game – as a professional footballer and as a pundit and presenter who broadcasts to millions around the world – not by simply gritting her teeth and pushing against all odds, but by harnessing her vulnerability. ‘I grew up believing strength is not showing vulnerability,’ she says. ‘However, life has taught me the opposite and actually showing vulnerability and exposing flaws can be the bravest thing you can do.’

We need to stop measuring ourselves against other people, and blindly following the status quo. Now we need to work out what we truly want. ‘Sandberg wrote for an audience of women she assumed were just as ambitious as she was,’ writes Perry. ‘The response suggests that a lot of us just… aren’t.’

Ambition should not be a dirty word when applied to women, but neither should a lack of it. Whatever path you choose – running a small business that works around your home life, going freelance, or being a stay-at-home mother – should be celebrated as much as any high-flying corporate promotion, as long as you’re fulfilled. Annie Ridout, for example, pivoted to a successful freelance career after losing her job while pregnant. ‘You can take away my job,’ she declares, ‘but you can’t take away my power.’
Identify where your limits are, establish firm boundaries and stick to them.

‘Freedom, joy, ease, surrender and serendipity became my new guiding success metrics,’ writes Jenny Blake in her book Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business. ‘Now I know, deep within my bones, how non-negotiable it is to be present in my business and life. I know what enough looks like.’

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