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Continued: 'Lean In?' Now that was some bad advice

  • Article by: ROSA BROOKS , Foreign Policy
  • Last update: February 24, 2014 - 11:53 AM

Then they quadrupled. Then they began to increase exponentially.

I leaned in some more. 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. I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in. I wondered if foreign-policy punditry was just too much for me. I wondered if I should move to Santa Fe and open a small gallery specializing in handicrafts made from recycled tires. I wondered if my husband and kids would want to go with me.

But then — after my I-hate-Sheryl epiphany — I came to a bold new conclusion.

Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.

We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.

Here’s the thing: We’ve created a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking e-mail 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.

But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.

Why? Because unlike most men, women — particularly women with children — are still expected to work that “second shift” at home. Men today do more housework and child care than men in their fathers’ generation, but women today still do far more housework and child care than men.

And just as work has expanded to require employees’ round-the-clock attention, being a good mom has also started requiring ubiquity. Things were different in my own childhood, but today, parenting has become a full-time job: It requires attendance at an unending stream of school meetings, class performances and soccer games, along with the procurement of tutors, classes and enrichment activities, the arranging of play dates, the making of organic lunches and the supervising of labor-intensive homework projects.

It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them. And as long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and child care, women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity. They’ll continue to do what too many talented women already do: Just as they’re on the verge of achieving workplace leadership positions, they’ll start dropping out.

The general American tendency to think that “more time at work” equals “better work” is exacerbated by the All Crisis All the Time culture of foreign policy. Global crisis never sleeps, and neither do the overworked staffers at the Pentagon, the State Department or the White House. It’s little wonder that many of the gifted young female staffers who enter these workplaces hit a wall at some point, and come to the painful realization that work and family obligations aren’t always things you can simply “balance.” Often, these weights become too heavy. They can crush you.

And this isn’t just about women. Men — and our society more broadly — also suffer when both work and parenting are intensive, round-the-clock activities.

Back in the day, Henry Ford didn’t advocate the eight-hour day for his auto assembly line workers because he was a nice guy. He advocated the eight-hour day because research demonstrated that worker productivity cratered after more than eight hours. As Brigid Schulte documents in her forthcoming book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” humans can only take so much for so long. When a workplace is full of employees who always lean in and never lean back, it’s full of employees who are exhausted, brittle and incapable of showing much creativity or making good decisions.

Sometimes, overwork gets downright dangerous. We have tough legislation mandating adequate rest periods for truck drivers and airline pilots — not because we think they need their beauty sleep, but because when overtired drivers and pilots make mistakes, people can die. When did we come to believe that crucial national security decisions are best made by people too tired to think straight?

If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don’t suffer as much as women when they’re exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family. Whether it’s one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, “Enough!”

In 1929, Virginia Woolf issued a cri de coeur: How can women become poets and writers, she asked in her now-classic essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” when they have no money, no independence, no privacy and no space? “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” declared Woolf.

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