Lean in, Lean Back, or Just Leave?

dianeIn the 14 years since my first child was born, I have been, at various times, a stay-at-home mom, a work-from-home mom, a part-time-working mom, and an all-day-in-the-office mom.

Because our two boys have autism, my husband and I have found it’s impossible for both of us to work full-time outside of the home. So last year, while I was working all day in an office, he cut back on his work hours so he could be with the boys when they got out of school.

Some men would balk at the idea of decreasing work hours to spend more time with family. Some would worry what such a decision would mean for their careers. My husband worried, but after considering the personal, professional, and financial consequences, we agreed that it was the right choice for us as a family. Fortunately, his boss and co-workers were understanding and supportive.

Last year, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In encouraged women to be more aggressive and more present in the workplace. Sandberg called on women not to shy away from professional opportunities and to behave more like their male counterparts.

But what if we reversed that advice? What if we empowered men to take on more of those traditionally female roles, without fear of consequences at work?

And going beyond that, what if we encouraged men to be a bit more like women? As Catherine Vaughan, a 28-year-old Stanford business student, put it in Forbes, “Rather than telling women to match men’s behavior, we should be encouraging everyone to lean back, to emulate a more feminine leadership style that is better correlated with society’s well-being.”

Vaughan projects that the typically feminine qualities of “thoughtfulness, humility, and well-reasoned decision-making… may be the remedy to the financial and political crises of the past decade.”

Of course, women aren’t the only ones capable of these qualities– just as men aren’t the only ones who can be single-minded and overly confident. But Vaughan’s perspective is an interesting counterpoint to Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy.

Eduardo Porter of the New York Times recently wrote about how women’s workforce participation has stagnated, with 69.5% of women in their prime working years (aged 25 to 54) engaged in the job market, compared to 82.5% of men.

He looked at how other, more progressive countries have implemented policies designed to get women into positions of power and encourage workforce participation. But he found that even in those countries, the move to gender equality seems to have stalled.

It seems that regardless of the policies in place, some women choose to stay home, happily and willingly. And isn’t that what the feminist movement was really about – giving women the opportunity to choose their own course in life, professionally and personally?

Yes, the gender wage gap stinks, women face discrimination in the workplace, and a year of maternity leave should be a right in any civilized nation. These are all issues women and men should fight for in the policy arena (assuming the federal government ever gets back to work.) There are numerous sensible policies America could implement to improve the lives of working women and families – check out the National Partnership for Women and Families to learn more.

But in our own lives, we can learn to be more understanding of each other. We can support both the woman who is assertive on the job and the man who leaves early to pick up his kids. And whether each of us decides to lean in, lean back, or leave the workforce, we can respect that we are all trying to find a balance that works for ourselves and our families.




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