“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This phrase forms the basis of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg argues that many factors have held women back from taking leadership roles in the workforce, including their own unwillingness to “lean in” to the work.
I knew exactly what Sandberg meant by this and what she meant when she said that women “leave before they have to leave” when it comes to combining family and work.
I was finishing my Master’s degree the same week my first child was due, and I had little idea what to do next. An opportunity became available in my department for a job that I believed I was uniquely qualified for and would likely love—but it would mean moving and might be only a temporary opportunity, lasting anywhere from two to ten years. With a husband who had no interest in moving and a new baby on the way, I didn’t even bother to apply. I couldn’t see how I would make it work. It would likely mean a break in the marriage and that worried me primarily because I was uncertain about my economic future—new babies tend to do that to a person.
Fast forward a few years and the marriage ended in divorce. I had found only part-time work teaching and was struggling financially. I regretted deeply not applying for that position. It might have sent me off on a satisfying career path and led to bigger and better things, but I held my own self back, unsure how I would combine the job with an intransigent husband and a new baby.
If I had taken Sandberg’s advice, I would have applied for the position and then figured out how to make everything else work.
Of course this is easy for Sandberg to say. She has a supportive husband who seems to meet her half way on housework and childcare. She also has degrees from elite institutions, and she waited until she was older to have children.
But these are all just excuses I’m making for my own inability to take charge of my life. I have degrees from good institutions. I divorced a man who had no interest in being an equal partner and my children are now grown and becoming independent. At forty-eight, I’m set for a renaissance in my career and my ability to pursue my own interests and goals.
As a middle-aged woman, I’m much more secure in my own ability and desires. I know what matters to me, and I’m more willing to stretch myself to reach for it. And perhaps that’s the most important take-away for me from Sandberg’s book: figure out what you want and don’t make any excuses in getting it.
But even if I overcome these internal struggles, it still doesn’t mean I’ll be successful or emerge as a leader. Society continues to uphold “brick walls” against women who push to take on leadership positions and until we knock these walls over, it won’t matter whether women lean in or out or lose their fear.
What we must do is combine these approaches. We must encourage women to trust themselves and to push hard against their internal fears of balancing work and family. Then we must organize and fight to deconstruct the barriers society has erected to keep women out of leadership positions.