Why “Leaning In” Often Leads To Falling Over
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Why “Leaning In” Often Leads To Falling Over

After nearly 20 years of leaning in, I pretty much fell over (turns out we all need something to lean against).

Holmes Report

Ever since Sheryl Sandberg started beating the “women need to push harder to get to the top” drum in 2010, I have been pondering that issue and wondering if it serves us. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a feminist and I’ve always been ambitious. A valedictorian, I graduated in the early 1990s with a B.A. honors degree in social sciences (women’s studies featured heavily) and had every intention of getting to the top of my game.

From the outside, it appears that I’m enjoying a stellar career. I’ve held management positions on both sides of the Atlantic, made partner at an international PR consulting firm, founded businesses that weren’t my own, founded a business that is my own; hired, fired, been 100 percent responsible for P&Ls; and provided strategic counsel to CEOs of some of the world’s smallest and biggest companies. And yet, it’s never quite been how I imagined.

I never factored in what it would feel like to be a mother when I was listening to lectures in college and dreaming of the days I’d be wearing a suit with big shoulder pads and carrying a briefcase to the top. (This was England in the early 1990s.) And setting that aside, I had NO idea what it would be like to be a working parent, let alone a solo parent. In choosing a profession I knew to be dominated by women I figured that somehow it would all work out.

Like many professional women, I was in my early 30s when I had my first child in 2002. At the time that seemed “late” as I had spent a good 11 years working hard at getting to a management position, but many women now wait until they’re in their 40s so they don’t miss a rung on the corporate ladder. Unlike the UK, or most other parts of the world, maternity leave was a paltry six weeks and aside from a tiny sum from my employer, the only money that I earned was state leave. It barely paid the grocery bills. The US is the only first world country not to mandate paid maternity leave. We should be ashamed.

As I returned to work, barely recovered from birth, completely sleep deprived and miserable about leaving my newborn, I was determined to find a way to continue to nurse my son. My male boss asked me: “Are you planning to milk at the office?” Clearly he saw me as some kind of bovine producer, not a talented senior manager with a perfectly reasonable request for a private space. The one and only solution was to pump in the restroom. Another, female boss, berated me a few weeks later for leaving at 6pm each night and said I should be out hosting networking dinners at least twice a week. She did not have kids.

In another job, where I regularly spent just 20 minutes a day of awake time with my then 10 month-old, a male boss demanded that I come into work on a Sunday and when I said I didn’t have childcare, he said he’d hire someone. You know, just any old person off the street. And this was just the first year of juggling work and learning how to be a parent.

Once I was parenting solo, I’d hire a babysitter three times a week so I could work late. While those evenings felt like a blessed relief because I didn’t have to screech out of work at 5:30pm to pick up my son from daycare, it wasn’t like I was enjoying any “me” time from my babysitting dollars. Once he started school, I discovered there were 15+ weeks a year, when there was NO SCHOOL! Summers became my least favorite part of the year because of the stress of planning childcare, and I felt badly for him that he was going to a new camp each week.

And it’s not just parenting that makes it hard for women to keep climbing the ladder, it’s also men’s attitude in the workplace. The CEO of a billion dollar company squeezed me on the ribs as I handed him a business card; a male consultant became affronted when I turned him down for a date after a first encounter at a business meeting; and in one of my first ever jobs, the male head of a realty firm recorded dirty ditties for me to enjoy as I transcribed letters from a dictaphone. Male clients will often ask me who is caring for my son when we are traveling for business, implying that I have somehow left my “post”.

After leaning in hard for many years, I made it to the “top” and became the GM of a PR firm in San Francisco, a position I held for nearly six years. But guess what, after nearly 20 years of leaning in, I pretty much fell over (turns out we all need something to lean against). 

To keep my mental health and family afloat, I decided to opt out of corporate life and run my own virtual consultancy north of San Francisco. It’s no panacea but I have flexibility, which is crucial, and I can arrange my working day as best meets my clients and my family. I miss working with a bigger team and having more resources, but it’s a trade-off that I’ve had to make. Perhaps Sandberg would say I’ve leaned out.

Rather than scolding women for not leaning in, Sandberg should talk to real women, raising real kids without an army of nannies, in real situations where perhaps there’s only one parent, and find out how to change things. I don’t imagine that Marissa Meyer’s decision to ban remote working is going to help.

Yes, there are huge policy issues that need to be tackled: from maternity leave, the length of the school day, the length of the school year and the lack of childcare provision – whether physical or in the form of tax breaks – for working parents, but let’s attack them.

This is not a question of asking women to apply more effort. We need to jettison our broken systems and create a new framework for all working parents. This is not just a women’s issue.

Alice Chan is prinicpal at Bird PR 

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