Leaning In, Out, or In-Between

Much attention has been given in the media to Sheryl Sandberg’s call for women to Lean In—to overcome their internal barriers and fears, take a seat at the table, and be more assertive in advancing their views and careers. Sandberg also, though perhaps less forcefully, points out the many ways that the system is broken, illuminates inherent tensions between life and work, and concedes that not all women are concerned with making it to the top of their organizations.

So, where does this leave women who are or who hope to be leaders—leaning in, leaning out, or somewhere in between?

Women in Leadership

"I agree with Sandberg that how women are socialized can lead to their, for instance, being uncomfortable with conflict at work or hesitating to take credit for their success," says POD Director Ujima Donalson. "However, I dislike the idea of putting pressure on women to lean in. I know that Sandberg also writes about speaking your truth and bringing your whole self to work, and personally I wish those messages were more at the forefront. What I hope for myself and my team members is that, rather than leaning in or out, the focus is on being authentic and doing what’s best for you. Thatís how women—and men—can best thrive, whether in leadership or in other roles."

Sandberg writes that "we move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in." This view is based in part on the belief that opportunity breeds opportunity. According to Lean In, "Research already suggests that companies with more women in leadership roles have better work-life policies, smaller gender gaps in executive compensation, and more women in mid-level management."

Women, and mothers, may bring other benefits as leaders. Cris Fowler, director for academic services at the UW Information School, explains that "motherhood has taught me to expect the unexpected. Life happens—and often at the most inconvenient times. Being a mother has shaped my personality to be more accepting of the unexpected and to recognize that I can’t control all things. I think it also helps me be more forgiving as a leader."

Striving for Balance

Amy Hawkins, who manages the WorkLife program at UW, agrees in part with Sandberg that "women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family."

"Where I quibble is characterizing some of those decisions as accommodations or sacrifices, which seems negative," Hawkins says. "The truth is that women—and men, too—might value other facets of their life more than work, in general or at various points in their lives. Most women I know are consistently leaning in based on their values, goals, beliefs, desired outcomes. For one, that may be leaning into a leadership role at work; for another, it may be in a leadership role for parenting or for a hobby or vocation outside of work."

Randi Shapiro, executive director of the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning, part of the Haring Center in the UW College of Education, sees a natural ebb and flow to work and life. "In a healthy organization, if we look at our workforce over the entire course of their ‘worklife’ and consider all their contributions—rather than looking at a particular point in time—we will see individuals leaning in and out at various periods within their careers, and that is how it should be."

The Institutional Role

Hawkins believes people should decide what’s best for them but points out that desire and reality don’ít always align. "Women should be able make their own choices, but your role, the nature of your job, and the organization you work for, along with many other factors, can all contribute to either expanding or limiting your choices."

Shapiro echoes Hawkins’ viewpoint. "Having system-wide supports in place that allow for flexibility and worklife integration, while still addressing the business case, is the key to having more women (and men) lean in rather than ‘scale back their ambitions to meet outsized demands,’ as Sandberg describes. I would also offer that in the current economy women do not have the luxury of leaving the workforce, and as an employer it behooves us to help them achieve whatever level of success they are aiming for at any particular point in time. We need to take the long view of worklife and support individuals at each step along the way."

Fowler sees herself as someone who tends to lean in at work and believes "women, and especially mothers, are in a unique position when it comes to leadership. First, we must have a sense of ambition and commitment to our goals in order to attain leadership roles. Then, along with our full-time jobs as parents, we must maintain focus and drive to get to where we want to be. It’s tricky at times, to say the least, but working at the UW—while not perfect at all times—allows some flexibility with my schedule and approach that I’m not sure I’d find elsewhere."

Growth Over Advancement

Donalson also appreciates the environment at the UW and believes that leaning in doesn’t always have to mean moving up or planning your next career move. "Focusing on the growth and development of you and your team is another way of leaning in," notes Donalson.

Her experience in the private sector was much different from what she’s found at the UW. "I was identified as a leader with growth potential, but one mixed result of that was a formal mentoring relationship that—in addition to drawing out my strengths and aiding my development—insisted that the ‘real way’ to get ahead was to work excessively long hours, be available to travel extensively, and to, essentially, always put my job first over all else," Donalson says.

"In comparison, at the director level here at the UW, I’ve been given support, as well as latitude, with how to carve out my role. I appreciate the incredible balance I experience as I lean in, lean out, or remain in the middle. It feels good to be at a place where my team and I can truly flourish."

Spring 2013 | Return to issue home