Why Today’s Feminists Are Opting to ‘Lean Out’ Instead

Being a successful woman is not one size fits all.
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Being a successful woman is not one size fits all.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg captivated a generation of women with her 2010 TED Talk and subsequent book about “leaning in.” The term she coined is an encouragement for women to demand a seat at the proverbial table by recognizing and overcoming their passivity and insecurity in the workplace while simultaneously stepping up in their home lives. Professional young women everywhere seemed to nod in collective agreement, and the resulting platform LeanIn.org grew to become a community of 1.2 million followers on Facebook.

While Sandberg’s Lean In movement immediately gained an enthusiastic base of support, giving vocabulary and an action plan to the abstract idea of “having it all” that many women pined for, her detractors were numerous; their reasons as multiple. Sandberg's biggest critics now, seem to be those who wholeheartedly embraced the lean-in ethos at the outset, but found Sandberg’s plan to get ahead at work while simultaneously getting ahead at home proved simply to be unsuccessful, failing to deliver the fulfillment it apparently brought to the author. In 2014, the New Yorker published an article titled “Lean Out: The Dangers For Women Who Negotiate.” Two separate books, both titled Lean Out, were released in 2015 and 2016—both authored by women pushing back against Sandberg’s message.

Perhaps writer Rosa Brooks put it most plainly, penning an essay for the Washington Post titled, “Recline, Don’t Lean In (Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg), in which she recounts how she came to resent the lean-in way of life. “I ate protein bars and made important telephone calls during my morning commute. I stopped reading novels so I could write more articles and memos and make more handicrafts to contribute to the school auction. I put in extra hours at work. When I came home, I did radio interviews over Skype from my living room while supervising the children’s math homework. And I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg. Because, of course, I was miserable.”

Why, after the generational push for more opportunity and parity in the workplace, are more and more women rebelling against the notion of leaning in and choosing to lean out? And what does leaning out look like, anyway?

Jennifer Longnion, a longtime organizational development and HR executive who worked for the likes of Coca Cola and Motorola before joining start-up Dollar Shave Club, hopes it’s because women are asking themselves two important questions: "What’s most important to me," and, "Can I have those things and still be successful in this environment?"

When Longnion asks her charges to identify what is most important to them, she encourages them to consider the entirety of their life—not just work but family, hobbies, personal goals, and other interests. She makes them write it down. In doing this exercise, she finds that many women realize they’ve already paid too high a price in the name of their professional success. “You have to know your limit,” she says, “what’s at risk, and when you’re damaging what’s important to you.”

From there, Longnion helps employees think through what they need—a more flexible schedule, for example, or more convenient childcare, or more meaningful support from peers—to ensure that they’re honoring what’s most important to them, and to assess whether or not it’s possible to have those needs met in their current professional role. “If the answer is yes, I tell them to ask for what they need. If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to think about a new environment. Those are hard conversations for people to have, but they often lead to really significant improvements in quality of life.”

A newly released report by Women in the Workplace, a joint venture of Sandberg’s own LeanIn.org and global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, found that of women who opted not to pursue “top executive” positions within their company, 42 percent cited the belief that they wouldn’t be able to balance family and work commitments, and 21 percent stated that such a promotion would not be worth the personal costs. Interestingly, both concerns were shared equally by the men in the study.

Former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan Montella was forced to consider leaning out when she lost her job during the collapse of Wall Street in 2008, and it was only then that she realized she had failed to find a fulfilling identity outside of her job. As chronicled in her memoir, Full Circle: A Memoir of Leaning In Too Far and the Journey Back, Montella blames a temporary loss of her authentic identity to willingly leaning in too far, all while earning professional accolades and financial success that appeared to be a crowning achievement.

Longnion reports that she continually observes female employees like Montella getting too close to their breaking point at work. “Basic gender treatment from early in life teaches kids about the roles people play,” she says. “The pedagogy is set up to reward dutiful students who do what they’re told, and I think girls figure that out faster than boys, which sets a lot of women up to want to be dutiful as adults. Whatever we learn will make us successful is what we hold onto.”

While being a dutiful—and subsequently successful—employee may seem desirable in many ways, Longnion cautions that it can often lead to burnout. The desire to be dutiful leads to a perception of incentivization for taking on more work, leaning in to every task in an attempt “to prove themselves and their value.” Ultimately, women end up leaning out as a necessary act of survival.

It’s not just the young professionals who are buying into leaning out. Baby boomer Caroline Mayer has chosen to slow down her life as a retiree. “At this stage in my life,” she says, “I simply want to lean out.” She’s noticed a similar trend amongst many of her friends. “Whether retired or not, most told me they’re still struggling to juggle all their daily duties,” Mayer says. “Many of their tasks are voluntary, like helping out at local charities. But others are mandatory, like taking care of their aging parents.”

Longnion notes that women in particular seem to feel the need to explain or apologize for requests that would allow them to find better balance at work. Whereas Montella’s lean out was sparked by a lay-off and Mayer’s occurred in retirement when she didn’t have to negotiate the terms with a boss, the majority of women caught in the middle of the lean-in/lean-out tug-of-war are mid-career, considering personal and family commitments as well as their own dreams and interests, wondering where the elusive sweet spot known as “balance” might be found in the midst of it all.

That’s the hard part, really—determining how far in or out you need to lean to find the version of fulfillment that is most authentic to you. Once you hone in on it, perhaps using Longnion’s two questions as a starting point, the next step is giving yourself permission to go after it. “I don’t need your reason, I just need your ask,” Longnion says of how she hopes female employees approach her as “Chief People Officer” (yes, that’s her actual job title). “As females, we need to learn to embrace this. We don’t need to explain our why, or apologize for asking for something. We just need to know we deserve to ask for what we need.”

And isn’t that a display of feminism itself—to believe that you are worthwhile and to negotiate for what you need to make it work? Whether that means asking for a promotion, a work-from-home option, or chocolate cupcakes at the farewell lunch as you move on to a new chapter—we can all lean in to these asks, even if, in some ways, they’re the very things that are helping more and more women lean out.

Photo Credit: ABC News