As someone who writes a blog poking fun at the chaos of being a working mom and who reads four newspapers a day (well, okay, scans the headlines), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t entirely up to speed on Sheryl Sandberg's “lean In” phenomenon before last week.
Sure, I saw the famous Facebook COO smiling from the cover of TIME magazine and saw a few tweets and posts from friends about her book. But like most of those who have been weighing in without bothering to actually read her book, I mistakenly dismissed it as just another pathetically defensive tome reassuring women we can indeed “do it all” … albeit with the help of full-time nannies, cooks and assistants.
What in the world could I have in common with this fabulously wealthy and fantastically successful Silicon Valley powerhouse? As a woman who actually somewhat “leaned out” of my own agency career after my son was born five years ago by scaling back to a part-time schedule, it seemed that she was preaching everything I was not practicing.
And like Alice Chan, who wrote here last week on the dangers of pushing too hard on the career front, I am still not entirely convinced that gunning to the top of my profession while sacrificing my family and personal life is the right approach.
Imagine my surprise, then, when just a few pages into Lean In, I began to nod and murmur, “so true,” and “yep, I did that, too” or “wow, she’s right!” In the pre-Kindle days, I would have been grabbing for a highlighter; now I was posting snippets on Facebook and stopping colleagues in the halls of the office to recite parts of the book.
My biggest takeaway, and what I tell everyone who will listen, is that Sandberg’s message is so much bigger and more important than the one dilemma everyone is focusing on – the work-life balance, working mother conundrum.
Even Sandberg herself admits she has not figured out all the answers to this struggle, and she absolutely does not dismiss the topic. However, her point is that this is just one part of a larger issue – i.e., the social, societal and psychological factors women need to consider and strategize about overcoming themselves in order to rise to the top of our fields.
Often I have rationalized that I was simply never interested in running a company or even becoming a partner at my firm. But is that because I lacked confidence in my abilities to lead? Was I paralyzed by guilt over leaving my son to go to work? Have I been hobbled by a desire to be liked rather than successful but unpopular? I admit all of those factors have played a part in my reticence to move up.
Sandberg emphasizes overall that encouraging more women to strive for these senior leadership roles is critical, if only to unleash the other 50 percent of the population’s brainpower for the great good of society. In PR – particularly the agency side public relations – the dearth of women CEOs is a strong reminder of why what she says matters.
Even in a field where the junior ranks are overwhelmingly dominated by women, by the time you get to the C-suite of the global firms, it’s a veritable old boys club. Out of the top 10 global PR firms as ranked by Holmes Report, zero are led by women. Out of the top 15, the number climbs to a meager two.
As someone who pressed “pause” on her own career, I can understand firsthand why agency life, with the long hours and round-the-clock demands of clients and media, drives so many of us out once children come into the picture.
But perhaps with more women at the top, we’d be coming up with more creative solutions to these juggling challenges rather than accepting the mass exodus of women to corporate, freelance or part-time positions.
Aimee Grove is VP of media relations at Allison + Partners