Last year, I debated at Cambridge University on the topic of ‘leaning in’ - the term made popular by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. It is a debate I remember every time the new year starts creeping around, as I find myself having to revisit whether or not ‘leaning in’ is truly worth it.
When I first read Sandberg’s book, I agreed with the underlying principle that women can hold themselves back psychologically and have the power to rewire that for themselves. What I disagreed with is that ‘leaning in’ meant becoming a corporate executive.
To be fair, Sandberg does not overtly advocate all young women to follow her corporate trajectory. So I chose to interpret her argument as follows: leaning in can mean choosing your own path. It can mean building new systems, challenging the status quo and creating a different world.
In recent years, I have watched girlfriends take salary cuts to start their own charity; move countries to head up divisions; quit secure jobs to focus on creative projects; go on adventures to kickstart new chapters in their life. They are all doing different things. Yet as long as they are chasing what matters most to them then to me they are leaning in.
After all, the idea of a woman chasing her own dreams is still a relatively recent one. In the 1950s we had the images of quintessential housewives who stayed at home to raise kids and cook and clean, supporting the man as he went out to achieve his dreams. A woman’s world was narrowed to the one inside the home, and she was meant to find fulfilment in serving her husband and children.
Fast forward a few decades as women entered the workforce, and in the 1990s, the concept of the ideal woman became superwoman — the woman who could dominate professionally as well as being the domestic caregiver of the 1950s.
When I have seen my female friends try and reach this, I have noticed that for each woman, leaning in starts with each women defining for herself what constitutes fulfilling work. Meaning is a fluid construct - it changes as you change. What you value in one season of your life might fluctuate as you mature since it is inevitable that along the way, responsibilities and priorities shift.
Leaning in means contributing to changing the narrative of what it means to be a woman today. It means not apologising for having your own dreams. It means recognising that your contribution to society can expand beyond defining yourself solely in relation to those you take care of.
When I share that idea with girlfriends who have young children, most of the time they want to punch me. With sleepless nights and learning to breastfeed, they’re barely keeping their head above water. The thought of being asked to do even more, being made to feel like they are not ‘doing enough’, understandably makes them angry.
Yet when the kids are in school and they have more time, they do take a pause and wonder what it is they might turn their attention and intelligence towards.
Historically, women have been encouraged to be nesters. Leaning in encourages us to be hunters. The tragedy for my generation is that women have been told they can be hunters, the invisible game rules are different for female hunters.
The main criticism of ‘Lean In’ — that in placing too great a focus on individualised strategies (‘fix the woman’) it avoids addressing institutional factors (‘fix society’). Obviously certain external barriers for women in leadership need to come down yet we have no idea how long that could take.
No institution changes until individuals try to change it. What I do know for sure is that men do not sit around and discuss how they are going to make the workplace a better place for women.
This leads me to believe that institutional changes must be led from within the system. Nothing is going to change unless challengers become influencers at their organisations.
I believe that as an educated, ambitious woman, you owe it not only to yourself to lean in, but to the women who walk beside you and are walking behind you.
You are more than someone’s wife and mother and sister and daughter. Just like your father or brother or husband or boyfriend is more than who he is at work.
Like the men in your life, you as a woman deserve an identity and a contribution that is completely your own, which no one can ever take away from you. The more women lean in, the more we can infiltrate the workplace, challenging and changing the culture for ourselves and for other women, creating new systems altogether.