First Person

I Couldn’t Afford to Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg’s movement is nice—in theory. But as this sole-earner and mother of twins discovered while working for an abusive boss, pride is a privilege for women in the workplace.

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“Go ahead. I dare you to hit me.”

I stared down my boss through slitted eyelids, even as I was having an out-of-body experience. Was this really happening? Was a man, my superior no less, coming at me in a rage with his hand raised?

He stopped inches from my face, nostrils flared, his puffs of breath peppering my face. He was shaking with anger. But he put his hand down.

As he stormed back to his upstairs office with a view of the pond and woodlands through his floor-to-ceiling windows, my staff peeked out of their basement cubicle cubbies at me, wide-eyed. Once his last step echoed on the stairwell, they gave me a standing ovation. In that moment, I leaned in.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement is full of hope and optimism. It breeds confidence and community and fights against the unfair notion that women who know what they want and go for it are “aggressive” and “abrasive” while men who do the same are “leaders” and “innovators.” This idea is so ingrained in our society that my required graduate-level texts on leadership and management listed “masculinity” as one of the top necessities for a leader. I was the only one in my management class who spoke out about that, and my female professor shrugged, admitting it was wrong but saying it was the way of the world.

A capsulized definition of lean in as a business model would be: identify your passion, take risks, and seize new opportunities while working hard to show your worth.

Back when I was a television news producer, I did just that. I had convictions. I said what I meant, and I moved with gusto and flair. I had faith in my ideas, and I worked harder than anyone else on the team to make them come to fruition. I was innovative. I was new. I had vision and creativity and most importantly tenacity.

The good old boys in my previous news shops used to call me “a mouthy broad” with affection. They listened to my ideas with a smile and gave me a pat on the head, but usually laughed me off. When they stopped laughing and started holding me back, well, I would leave. The first decade of my résumé reads like a travelogue as I got frustrated and moved to higher ground with each year. But that kind of risk-taking confident movement is a privilege.

Let’s not forget that Sheryl Sandberg is a young, White, high-powered corporate executive. Bell hooks, in fact, calls Sandberg’s feminism a corporate feminism, a “faux feminism,” stating that “she makes it seem that privileged White men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to White women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.”

Jenny Hill, a senior courseware developer in Canada, agrees. “Lean in doesn’t work unless someone is willing to recognize that a woman’s contribution has the same value as a man’s. There’s also this notion of ‘the confidence gap.’ Sure, some people have confidence problems, but women showing confidence also causes negativity. We’re double-bound all over the place.”

It was the day my boss almost hit me that I learned that “leaning in” really is more of a privilege than a right.

His rage was unfounded. A show segment wasn’t ready because our playback deck was stuck again, and instead of anyone telling the boss it needed to be fixed, everyone was ignoring it for fear that he would blame them and give them a tongue-lashing. So, I told him about it, like any normal, reasonable person would. And I offered suggestions as to how to streamline the process digitally so we could finally get rid of that old machine. For that, he threatened me physically, channeling all the frustration at an unprepared segment at me.

This is the point where I hand in my resignation and fly to better markets—usually. But as I sat down at my desk to type it up, full of indignation and anger of my own, I found I couldn’t do it. For the first time in my life, I was stuck. I couldn’t lean in. I couldn’t do anything but make nice.

At home, my twin babies were happily rolling around in their pack-and-plays, bouncing in their hand-me-down motorized chairs, and drinking formula paid for by WIC vouchers. My husband cared for them while he hopelessly searched for a job after being laid off nearly two years before in the economic crash. We lived in a house we couldn’t afford, its value now plummeted to nearly nothing. My meager income from this job was the only money we had coming in. We couldn’t afford my pride.

The problem is that “lean in” focuses on women as change agents, while the issues hindering women’s success at work have more to do with the culture as a whole. It also assumes that all women have an equal starting point. Women may be a larger part of the workforce these days, and getting just as many college degrees as men, but they are also still supposed to assume the role of main caregiver and homemaker in their families. By further focusing on women, we’re not attacking the root of the problem, which is as workflow equalizes, so too should other responsibilities.

Head of the New America Foundation and social scientist at Princeton Anne-Marie Slaughter nailed it when she said, “The way we view women changed radically. The way we view men, not at all.”

Women across the globe share the same story. Sara Ess, an educator in Mexico says she feels she’s on the verge of completely burning out. “I lean in, and I hate it. People judge me for working ‘like a man’ when I have a young son at home but complain if I don’t provide for half or more of his expenses. I cannot win.”

Raeven Zayas now stays at home and cares for her child in California after leaning in did no good at her low-income job. “I accepted every position of more responsibility they threw at me, consistently put in 60-plus hours a week, and was basically the best at what I did. I never moved past $8 an hour. My work was never recognized.”

Hill says even while multitudes of women are working harder and harder, they’re still not getting the recognition their male counterparts would receive. As for those who choose not to lean in? “It’s not because they lack ambition or don’t want to work hard. They’re already working incredibly hard somewhere else in their lives.” 

As stories crop up about women who choose not to “lean in” and judgments are passed on them, I caution the flow of the movement. Not everyone can lean in all the time. Not everyone should. Being able to lean in is a privilege, not a black-and-white battle over the institution of the patriarchy. So that those who cannot do so may not be victims of their own subscription to this male-dominated model, but instead victims of needing a job in the current climate in which we find ourselves. If you literally can’t afford to be shown the door at any given point, you’re forced to play by the rules handed down by your employer.

The day after my boss blew up at me, I didn’t hand in my resignation. After going home and playing with my kids, and feeding my husband and myself macaroni and cheese for the 18th time that month because it’s all we could afford, I handed in an apology instead. I asked my boss to forgive my lack of foresight and subsequent outburst and let him know that I had figured out a way to rig the deck so that the segment would play properly on air. I played his game, using his rules, and when confronted, I backed down and meekly took my place. Because I had to.


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