I nearly choked on my coffee last week when I read an article in the Washington Post entitled "Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg?" How could this be? Isn't she the bible for all smart women my age? Didn't I internalise her mantras? Preach her words to my friends? Quote her stats to my husband? So how could this be?
But the backlash has begun.
And the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. In consciously leaning in we put an incredible amount of pressure on ourselves. That ticker tape that runs through your mind questioning if you are getting things done, letting being liked get in the way, sitting at the table? This constant pressure not to let ourselves and other women down can feel quite overwhelming at times. If we don't keep pushing for the top positions it's like we're somehow letting down our forebears and other women fighting for their place at the table. But does all this leaning in truly make us happy? Is it what we really want? This article got me wondering...
Perhaps the main issue is that leaning in doesn't acknowledge that life is not one linear path any more. There are so many paths to fulfillment and success at work is only one part of the happiness code. It doesn't acknowledge that our life is in flux, our priorities change and we want different things at different times or all at the same time.
A few weeks ago, some female colleagues and I attended the Omniwomen launch event - a hugely inspiring day designed to help get more women in senior leadership positions at Omnicom. And the words of one speaker - Sarah Warby (Marketing Director, Sainsbury's) really struck me. She said "you can't have the balance right all the time." And I think there is a lot to learn from this. What she meant was that there are times in your life when you will want to focus more on your family and times when you will want to focus more on your career. This re-frames balance as something both more realistic and more fulfilling. It's a warning against seeing life in tunnel vision, as a step ladder to the top spot. Several of my friends are already in the top spots at their companies and are realising they are less happy than when they were more junior, although it's all they thought they wanted.
This sort of realisation is, I believe, the fuel behind the Sheryl Sandberg backlash. Perhaps a more healthy approach is to live life in BETA-mode, in flow, working it out as we go. It's not about leaning in to a fixed career path and single destination; it's more fluid than that, it's about embracing multiple paths that may interweave or diverge at different points in our life. Progress is not just about focusing on a mythical 'end point' (a Sisyphus eternally pushing the stone up the hill only for it to roll down again), but about finding meaning and joy in the journey itself. Not tirelessly striving for this mirage of perfection, but accepting life is a work-in-progress and embracing imperfection as part of life experience.
Written by Zoe Fenn
Director at Global Insight and Brand Consultancy