Leaning in and the myth of having it all

The day after Jill Abramson was fired from the New York Times, I got an e-mail from an old acquaintance—let’s mix things up a bit and call her 聰明的女人, yeah?—wondering if we could talk. She is the mother of two young children, is highly educated with a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from top schools, and is on the verge of leaving a professional, high-level job that had offered her flexible work hours.

And she was wondering what to do next.

A mutual friend had suggested to her that she talk to me, since I was in this same position nearly five years ago, and had made some very conscious choices with regard to being a woman and a mother in the professional world.

So, 聰明的女人 and I got on the phone, and she told me she was looking for something that would pay well, allow her to be with her children when they needed her, and that would be intellectually stimulating, and…Why doesn’t this exist? Why is it so hard for women?

And I remembered thinking, Oh. This is sad.

Because there were two things going on in that conversation.

One, that the struggles over pay equality, expectations of women’s behavior, and burdens of women as primary caretakers are problems that so many women don’t even know about. It’s easy to forget, in the self-selected community in which I exist, that a significant portion of the female population might have a suspicion that something isn’t quite right, but they’re not aware of what that something is, and the relatively small knowledge about where we stand as women is still more than what others possess. And that was the situation I found myself in with 聰明的女人. She was only beginning to realize. Before this shift in her life, she belonged in the teeny weeny tiny segment of the population that might possibly maybe benefit from Sheryl Sandberg’s advice in Lean In (If you have not read this book, there are parts that are interesting and worth a read, but also parts that made me laugh out loud at how literally impossible the suggestions in there are for most women to act upon.)

Anyway. The point is that, in so many ways, these kinds of realizations are moments of crisis that are unique to a woman and a woman’s experience, and they’re not her fault. No matter how much onus books like Lean In try to place on the woman, herself, to change the entire system that is in motion around her, it’s not her fault. But it’s easy for it to feel that way when one doesn’t know the subtle-but-heavily-ingrained expectations that we, as women, fight against every day.

The second thing going on in that conversation was that, despite the evidence in front of her, 聰明的女人 really had expected that reaching for new opportunities was all she would need to succeed. She listed off a bunch of folks she knew who were in powerful positions, who might be able to help her find exactly the kind of job she wanted. These connections could all lead to opportunities, and she was initiating their creation.

Except all of the people she listed were men.

And when we hung up, it was clear that she still had at least a little of that expectation. She’d been really fortunate in the past with that same approach. And, to be fair, maybe it will work for her. She’s brilliant, well-educated, experienced, and tough. I admire who she is and I am grateful that a woman like her had that moment of realization, that This is more than just a feeling that something is off. It’s an ongoing struggle with a mass of knowledge behind it that is waiting to be discovered. Sitting at the table is great—when there is a table. Finding a true partner is fantastic—when you have an adequate pool of partners from which to choose. Leaning in is only possible when there’s something there to lean against, in the first place. Otherwise, you just end up falling on your face.

I hope that doesn’t happen to 聰明的女人. I hope she ends up getting everything she wants. But I also hope that this shift in her life changes the way she looks at all of the opportunities she has, at how hard she had to work for them precisely because of her sex, and how the discrimination is rampant at every level of professional and social interaction. If it can affect someone like Jill Abramson, that says a lot.

I’m not trying to be all, This sucks so let’s just give up. Not at all. This post is more of my own personal catharsis, to be honest. To have felt sad to see a smart woman feel stupid. To process the regret that comes with seeing a female go through something that women have been experiencing for centuries. It’s hard, and it’s never not jarring. It’s one of the reasons why I love the romance community so much. We are predominantly women. We are mostly extremely supportive of one another. When we lean in, it’s because, for the most part, we know that we are leaning on a caring shoulder. We know that we are leaning into a strong hug. Leaning is not about a fight. Should not be about a fight. And I’ll continue to rely on that perspective to get through the moments of crisis.

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8 Responses to Leaning in and the myth of having it all

  1. Lovely post. And leaning in is not about a fight! I love that this is a community of mostly women, and the supportiveness has been so important to me. Also, I sometimes I wonder if our lack of foisting expectations and stereotypes on each other is something that has enabled so many here to become really innovative artists and entrepreneurs and digital leaders.

    • Audra North says:

      I think that’s a great point–the common understanding we have about what it means to be a woman relieving some of the pressures we feel in the larger world. Even though that common understanding still encompasses an enormous range of experience, I do believe that degree of freedom from usual constraints tends to lower the impact of sex-based stereotyping and helps so many women accomplish truly great things! In short: yes, I think so. :)

  2. Ruthie says:

    I read this post on my phone at RT and really enjoyed it. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m seeing the effects of systematic sexism everywhere, stamped all over the choices I’ve made. It *is* sad. But it’s not the whole story, either. Thanks for this, Audra.

    Oh, and if anyone needs a sparkly BECAUSE SEXISM shirt, they are here. Mine cheers me up. http://riversandknox.spreadshirt.com

  3. Oh Audra, I just love, love, love this for like a million reasons related to my day job. But one is this–when I was first ordained a priest eight years ago, I had a truly wonderful woman mentor, who encouraged me to lean in. Her advice led me through some sticky situations, some of my own making and many others related to the systemic discrimination that exists in every institution, including (and I know you’ll be shocked by this) the Church.

    When the book Lean In came out and I heard interviews about it everywhere, I would throw up a little in my mouth over the way a beautiful admonition to stay in tough relationships and situations, digging deeper, pouring good will and high expectations onto others–how all this might loosen stuckness in ourselves and those with whom we work. All that is to say, I did not like how it had been co-opted into a self-help business-ey mantra. I still don’t.

    But the early mentoring I received helps me a lot. Now, as an author, I think about the kind of “leaning in” I first learned often because it helps me manage my anxiety about productivity, criticism and success. As a baby priest, I would tell myself that if I acted with integrity and authenticity and stayed in the game, I could feel good about myself no matter what happened. Now I try to do the same thing as a writer, thanks to that first mentor who has gone on to be one of the few woman rectors of a very large church.

    • Audra North says:

      Amber, that’s exactly it. I think you’ve explained it better than I ever could have. It’s hard to see the way that women often navigate life–by relying on a support network of other women–being turned into a “tactic.”

      It’s also mind-boggling to see the degree to which sexism exists in the world. And all over the world, not just in the United States. So far, the only thing I’ve noticed that helps to combat sexism is education. Of boys, girls, men, women…it’s a massive undertaking and one that is hard to look away from simply because of the fact that we have knowledge that allows us to see the imbalance. It was an eye-opening experience, just the same, when I was speaking with this woman, to realize how many women don’t have that knowledge.

  4. Fiona McGier says:

    All 4 of my kids are in their 20s now. When they were babies, husband and I decided that one of us should be home with them during the day, and since he made more money (despite his not having a college degree, and I have one, although in English, hence, useless), I quit my sales/marketing job and began the most interesting years of my life. I was primarily at home during the day, then worked nights and weekends at the only jobs I could get: minimum wage retail jobs. I became the person called on by the marketing reps, the kind of reps I used to be.
    Once the kids were older, I got re-certified to teach and started subbing. It’s been 10 years, and though I had a few interviews at the beginning, I’m now as old as the teachers who are retiring, so no one will entertain any notion of hiring me as anything other than the provider of “day-care for teens”.
    I tell teen-aged girls that once they stay home from a full-time job to be with their kids, their lifetime earning potential dives into the toilet. It’s not something anyone ever warned me about. I was in a national mothers’ support group that taught that sequencing was the norm: work full-time, then stay home full-time, then segue back into working as the kids get older. Yeah…right.

    So now with college bills I work multiple p/t jobs, doing anything I have to do to help bring in money for college and other bills. The year we had 3 in college I worked 3 jobs. Time to do promotions? Hell no! I didn’t even have time to sleep, let alone write! I don’t know what the solution is. We give lip-service to valuing mothers, but only as they’re useful to their husbands and kids. And we don’t really value kids either, or else they’d all be getting a truly great education, instead of so many being warehoused on the cheap, to fill in time until they’re let go into the general population to begin their working careers as “bottom-feeders”. I’m a bottom-feeder now too…all because I loved my babies enough to want to be the one to open their minds to the miracles of life and education. All of them are honors students and I’m extremely proud of them. I have to be. Because the cost was and continues to be so very high.

    • Audra North says:

      There are a few companies out there that are dedicated to relaunching women who have taken time out for their careers. But these companies often rely on placing clients in unpaid or low-paying internships as starting points, which is insulting, at best, because the message is still that the women who return to work somehow have less value.

      And you said something so so interesting: “It’s not something anyone ever warned me about.” My friend said the exact same thing. Exact. Same. Thing. I see it more often now that I’m reaching the age where my contemporaries are contemplating returning to work as their children transition into school. But even then, who has to take off work to take the kids to the dentist, or stay home when they’re sick? Often, it’s my female friends, not their husbands.

      That’s not to say that their husbands don’t pitch in. Many of them are awesome, and work really hard for their kids. But it’s more a reflection of the kinds of jobs that these mothers got after they went back to work. Lower-paying, lower-profile jobs that were deemed less critical to family welfare. So they get to take off for the sake of the kids.

      My mom sold her house when I went to college and moved into an apartment to pay for it. She, too, quit working when we were born and then went back to school when I was six. At the time, I resented her for it, but it was the only thing that allowed her to get as far as she did later in life. I’ve since apologized. :)