With all the conversations going on about how the country needs more women in technology and Sheryl Sandberg’s claim that women should ‘lean in’ to their careers, I got to thinking about my own path and why, as a woman with a computer science background, I’m not leaning in myself.
The immediate answer is that circumstances literally forced me out of my career: my employer refused to let me work from home, which was initially a problem when my boyfriend was confined to bed-rest after an accident, but became untenable when that boyfriend became my husband and we made the joint decision to relocate for his job. As an arborist, he has no choice but to go to where the trees are; much of his work literally cannot be done remotely (not all jobs can be, of course). As a web producer, I could have worked from home easily if my employer had allowed it, but since they didn’t (despite my attempts to make change), when we moved I was out of a job. [Side note: my tech position was then filled by a man].
But there’s more to the story. I think Sheryl Sandberg has spent too much of her life at the top to understand what it’s like in the corporate world for the rest of us. Very few men or women are lucky enough to have someone like Larry Summers take us under their wing as Sandberg did at a young age. Sandberg says that only successful women, not men, attribute their success to mentors, and that we sell ourselves short by doing so. But that’s not a fair assessment. Yes Sandberg is unquestionably smart, and she wouldn’t be where she is without having worked hard, but she has in fact had a profoundly different experience in the working world than the rest of us because she had someone of Summers’ stature backing her along the way.
It’s very, very hard to find a strong mentor in the workplace. And worse, it’s very, very hard even to find a workplace that values the ideas and input of its employees.
Perhaps that’s the real reason why so many women, including myself, lean out.
We are more highly educated than ever before. We attend universities where we are both challenged and encouraged to think outside the box; where we are tasked with intellectually exciting projects; where we are trusted to set our own schedules and find our own ways to meet deadlines. We graduate confident and capable, ready to continue our journey of learning through the course of the rest of our lives. It’s no surprise that young women at Barnard cheered when Sandberg advised them in her 2011 commencement speech, “You’re going to find something you love doing, and you’re going to do it with gusto. You’re going to pick your field and you’re going to ride it all the way to the top.”
But then these women leave university and get a job, where for far too many it becomes immediately clear—not over time, but immediately—that finding what you love doing is hard to come by, as is doing it with gusto. Suddenly, what matters most is being present at a desk for hours at a time, day in and day out. What matters most is looking busy, not being busy.
The offices of Michael Scott and Dilbert aren’t things of imagination. A friend of mine has described the work environment of his employer as “a place where creativity goes to die.” Sadly his description is appropriate for more of us than not. Who wants to lean in when their opinions aren’t valued? When they’re not encouraged to think creatively? When they’re not respected enough to make their own decisions about how and where to get their work done?
A recent study by Root Inc, America’s Workforce: What U.S. Employees Really Think about Today’s Workplace, asked 1000 employees to report on their feelings about work. Over the prior month, only 28% felt fulfilled and just 26% felt excited. 25% actually felt job-related anger. 67% percent could name something that would stop them from taking a risk at work (of these items, not having enough support from supervisors topped the list). Just 38% believe that their managers have built a strong working relationship with them. And 40% don’t understand their company’s vision.
Perhaps women who lean out do so not because they are insecure or afraid of asserting themselves, but because taking care of their own families’ needs becomes far more appealing than sticking around in a workplace that has so little to offer. And those who lean back do so because it’s just not worth it to them to play a corporate game that has so few rewards.
That’s not to say that once leaving school and starting a job, women (or men) should expect to be fast-tracked to the top; every job has a learning curve. But we also shouldn’t have to regress.
All workers should have a clear understanding of their employers’ vision and share a passion for pursuing a common goal. They should be encouraged to take risks and think creatively, under the support and supervision of mentors and managers. They should be held accountable for their work, and trusted to make decisions about how and where to get that work done. That’s the kind of workplace we would all be excited about, and happy to commit to “with gusto.”
To paraphrase that Costner flick, if you build it, she will come. Until then though, it’s hard to make the case for leaning into such a lackluster environment.
UPDATE April 28 2013: Read more in a follow-up post: Money Can’t Buy Meaning. Not Even for Men.