I read Lean In on my honeymoon. Yes, in between sips of tropical cocktails, I couldn't escape my drive to grow my career, even on the one trip where it was actually acceptable not to be checking my blackberry (it was that long ago). I devoured the Sheryl Sandberg doctrine with wild exuberance and glee. The message was aimed directly to me - a young, ambitious college-educated white woman - and it was clear and unapologetic; you can get ahead by going for what you want, all you need to do is lean in and take it.
I followed the commandments of the book: taking on each new leadership role, jumping at any new opportunity that presented itself and continuing to climb the corporate ladder. I leaned in while pregnant - remembering not to "leave before my leave" and was even promoted while on parental leave. It all seemed possible - a baby, a great partner, and growing career - and in the final weeks of my parental leave, I was even feeling eager to get back into the office. But once I had actually gone back to work, reality set in.
My return to work was sobering, as it is for countless female employees making the transition from working woman to working mother. We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling, but before we can get anywhere near it, we encounter the maternal wall. It’s hard, cold and nearly impenetrable. Joan C. Williams, Professor of Law and the Author who conceived the phrase, maternal wall, cautions that “women who have been very successful may suddenly find their proficiency questioned once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules. Their performance evaluations may plummet, and their political support evaporates.”
No matter how far we lean in, it is rarely enough to counter motherhood bias, not to mention systemic discrimination. And while the message of embodying a tenacious spirit and being personally accountable is one worth honoring, study after study suggests that this concept is only adding more pressure, not alleviating it. Working mothers are expected to morph into a work environment built for their grandfathers instead of employers adapting to their needs. It’s nothing short of offensive and downright irresponsible for companies to perpetuate this antiquated culture considering 70% of working women have children under 18 and in over 60% of families both parents work (and that number is thought to skew higher in professional white collar positions).
So if Lean In failed working mothers, especially those who are single (which Sandberg herself admitted) what can we do? As Michelle Obama stated eloquently and ever so bluntly late last year: “That whole, ‘So you can have it all…That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that s--t doesn’t work all the time.”
We are doing our part. But even when we show up, lean in, and shout at the top of our lungs; if employers and managers aren’t willing to hear us out, if they aren’t willing to advocate for us, with the same passion that we exude then the relationship is a one way street and we’re all heading in the wrong direction. The only way we can lean in is if employers are willing to give us a leg up as we set out to scale the maternal wall.
And perhaps that's it. The most inspiring thing any of us can do as working women is lean on each other, to give each other that leg up. I don't think the answer is to simply lean out, but instead for women to continue to band together and continue to shift the narrative that leaning in is simply not enough. When we continue to speak up, not only for ourselves, but for the women above us, around us and rising the ranks, employers and managers will have to recognize the structural bias of the maternal wall and that women are not choosing to downshift their careers but instead find it the only option in corporate offices across the country.
by Mary Beth Ferrante