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Why Female Entrepreneurs Are Scared to Lean In


Chasing corporate success is one thing. When you're chasing the success of your own business, your business often feels like your baby. You nurture it, look after it, prioritise it, feed it, think about it right before you fall asleep. You're meant to be in the one in charge, but like all matters of the heart, when it really, really matters - you're not in control. You might be the one who created it, but ultimately you created it so that you could obey it.

Sitting in a packed lecture theatre at LSE last month, I listened to prominent thinker Anne-Marie Slaughter explain the heart of why so many female entrepreneurs might have failed to - as Facebook COO and feminist advocate Sheryl Sandberg argues - 'lean in' (as in, fully grasp the new leadership opportunities now supposedly available).

Slaughter is an international lawyer, foreign policy analyst, political scientist and public commentator, and she's also the voice of that well-known Atlantic feature on why women still can't have it all.

Her Atlantic feature argued that "the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed" and outlined a vision of systemic change that would need to occur if we wanted equal opportunity for all women.

During her lecture that evening, Slaughter explored such arguments. What struck me was when she declared: "In the process of valuing men's work, we have devalued what was traditionally considered women's work -- caregiving, taking care of people and creating the foundation for a home."

However, Slaughter argued - we need to once again learn to value that caring part of ourselves, that part of us that is defined by our relationship to others. We should all value that part of ourselves because it is what makes us human.

It is also what leads us to value and strengthen our family unit. And family is often the foundation on which we build the confidence which drives our careers.

Family is therefore not a tension with work, but provides the foundation for work.

She pointed out that historically, we did not value caregiving and housework because it was women's work, and women were inferior to men. Yet she argued that the caring side of any individual needs to be valued because it is just as important as professional development.

When you invest in someone else and when that person succeeds, you grow. It is a different experience from when you invest in yourself and attain success.

Collectively, we should be valuing this because society benefits. Children who get the right care get better life incomes on every measure. Privilege repeats itself: those who have been raised in loving, positive environments are likely to create those same environments for their own offspring.

As long as we think of caring as "women's" work, we will never reach true gender equality. We have to assume that men will have caregiving obligations as women do and that they will be equally competent at home.

She gave an example of how when she once left her children in her husband's care, she had to fight the urge to check in with him every so often. She drew parallels to the professional world. If you went into your office and your boss said, "I'm biologically superior at this... if I micromanage you and check in every hour, then you'll get it." This would not work.

The same applies at home. Of course men can run households and raise children. Her overall argument was that we cannot change women's roles completely and leave men the same. As women, we can't assume that we are better than men at caregiving.

A few weeks later, I was asked to speak in front of a crowd of corporate career changers at Escape the City, and to describe my career to date, which has been fairly self-directed and driven by an entrepreneurial streak.

When it was time for questions, a soft-spoken, sweet-seeming guy in a suit asked: "This could be a controversial question, but do you ever look back on your career and wonder if you have been selfish?"

It shouldn't have bugged me, but it did. Of course I wonder if I've been selfish, I told him on the night, and as I talked to my friends about it afterwards, a girlfriend said: "Seriously, don't let that throw you off. Even if he did ask softly - he wouldn't have asked that of a man."

"Of course your career choices have to be yours - who else's?!" She continued. "Does anyone rely on you financially? Do you have to spend time with kids? Sick people? Elderly? No - so go after your dreams."

This is the first time in history where as a woman, if you choose to pursue your own dreams instead of existing to support those of a man, you no longer need to apologise. Yet no matter how progressive we like to think we are, there will still be a guy in a suit, judging your choices and making you squirm, because if you're a woman - who are you to chase your own dreams?

"Get back in the kitchen if you don't want to die alone" is something this Escape the City audience member never would have said to me or even thought, but it was what I heard from the voices in my head. Instead of letting his remark make me feel silly or stupid or selfish or guilty, I held onto the feeling strength and hope that I had felt as I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter speak.

I reminded myself that 'leaning in' has to happen internally before it can take place externally. Whether we are raising funding for our startup, managing our own business, or learning to code, we first need the self-belief that we deserve to be in the room, doing those things. Women can only reach leadership positions when they first dare to believe that they can.

Read more by Adele Barlow here.

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