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Why It's Not Always Possible to 'Lean In'

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SHERYL SANDBERG
AP

Since its release just over two weeks ago, much has been said and written about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead. In fact, her recent appearance on the cover of Time magazine accompanied by the headline 'Don't Hate Her Because She Is Successful' has created almost as much buzz as the book itself.

Through her book, and the wider Lean In community she has founded, Sandberg aspires to support women in fulfilling their career ambitions. Although she feels it is too late for women of her own generation, her vision for the future is an equal spread of men and women in leadership roles across the world of business and politics.

Her own CV boasts roles such as chief of staff for the United States Department of the Treasury, VP of global online sales at Google and most recently COO of Facebook. She is also a mother to two small children.

Although she has admitted it is not easy, her ability to juggle a demanding career with motherhood is part of what makes her such an important and popular role model for women and it is this theme that dominates Lean In.

I am not one of Sheryl's haters, in fact, having had the opportunity to witness her speak on a number of occasions while we both worked at Google, I can testify that she is a truly inspirational woman. However, I feel that her story only represents one type of woman, the successful woman in business who also has children. What concerns me are the absence of role models for the other side, the women in business who can't or don't want to have children.

Up until a few months ago I held a senior management role at Google. While I had nowhere near the level of responsibility Sandberg ever had, I was working at the required pace to get there and fortunately was well supported by my employers in achieving that goal. I was also trying to get pregnant.

One of Sandberg's top tips to women in her book is 'not to leave before you leave'. By this she means if you are thinking of having children, don't 'lean back' before that moment actually happens, instead 'lean in' and continue to focus and not to take your foot of the gas. In her experience, women start to lean back long before there is even a positive pregnancy test.

I was one of the women who did 'lean in', to the extent that I almost fell over. It should have been very black and white and I should have recognized that if I wanted to have a baby I needed to put that first, but I didn't for a very long time.

I continued to 'lean in' by working longer hours: signing up for demanding projects, travelling to conferences overseas and generally investing as much into my job as I always had done. In the background, as the months ticked by, I began to struggle with an increasingly complex and all consuming pregnancy plan, rushing to doctor's appointments at lunch time, mysteriously jumping out of meetings to take fertility medication or calls from doctors. On some of those calls I received devastating news about my hopes to have a child but still I walked into the next meeting and 'sat at the table'. ('Sit At the Table' is another of Sheryl's tips for women who don't want to be left on the sidelines.)

Although I should have been slowing down, instead I was speeding up and I ended up getting promoted again just as I was starting to go down the road of assisted reproductive treatment. This actually came as a real surprise, in my mind achieving a pregnancy, not a promotion, was my primary goal. I couldn't understand where it was all going wrong.

My identity crisis hit a new low after that promotion. I wasn't the mother that I yearned to be and although on the outside I looked like a highly ambitious career woman, on the inside I felt like I was living someone else's life. I still wanted a career, but what I really wanted I couldn't have. Leaning back wasn't an option as I was terrified of being a failure at work as well as at being a mother.

I found myself desperately looking for new role models. In other words, women who were successful and childless, and who still appeared to be fulfilled. While there may well be more of them out there than the working mothers, their voice is hardly ever heard. Perhaps their story just doesn't have the same appeal.

I remember attending a panel session at a Women in Business event in the hope that there would be a few women who represented the other side. Predictably, most of the panelists were successful career women who were also mothers. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the topic of juggling children and a career, as if being able to do that was the definition of success for a woman. I remember one woman in particular from the audience who asked a question. She was heavily pregnant and wanted to know how she could be a woman in business and not be defined by her 'bump'. The rest of the audience erupted into cheering and clapping in support of her. There didn't seem to be any room in these people's minds for a woman who had children but not a career, or a woman like me with a career but no children. It seemed essential to have both in order to be worthy of 'a seat on the panel' to use Sheryl's analogy again.

I wanted so badly to stand up and shout about how difficult it was to have a career and be infertile, although I doubted that if there had been any others like me in the audience they would have publicly given me the same support the pregnant woman had received. Of course I appreciated that it must be hard to be constantly sleep deprived, regularly late for work as a result of dropping off kids to childcare or school and missing important meetings when they got sick but I wanted people to know it was equally hard to be an infertile woman going through the horrors of fertility treatment while juggling a career.

I don't know how many meetings and conferences I had to miss because they clashed with the timings of a treatment cycle, or how many days I went into the office shattered from lack of sleep because I was up at night taking medication or awake from fear and worry. At least if you are pregnant or have children and need to be absent from the office you have a valid excuse that people understand. Women going through fertility treatment are generally forced to conceal their pain and the disruption to their lives. Most companies don't have policies for people going through IVF and many women use their holidays to do treatment cycles, leaving them completely burnt out and exhausted. Like me, they are also most likely to be the ones to 'lean in' as they strive to overcompensate at work for what they are struggling to achieve outside the office.

Fortunately, I eventually found a few role models, both in real life and in the public eye, who lived fulfilled lives without children and who didn't fall over from leaning in too much. I just wish we heard more from them.

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