Yesterday, Nicholas D. Kristof man-serted himself into the “having it all” debate with his New York Times op-ed “She’s (Rarely) the Boss.” Describing the forthcoming book Lean In, by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Kristof finds himself wishing for two versions of Sandberg’s book, “One marketed to young women would encourage them to be more assertive. One marketed to men (and women already in leadership) would emphasize the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.”
Good suggestions. Personally, I would like a third, specifically for new moms. Sandberg explains, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” While I’m glad the need for women in leadership roles is in the forefront of all our minds, I worry that the conversation tends to center around super-powerful ladies with huge resources and very high stakes. Sandberg herself had a full-time writer to help her pen her book (which she takes pains to explain she did on her own time — don’t worry, Facebook stock holders!). But using the Sheryl Sandbergs, Marisa Mayers, or even Beyoncés of the world as examples doesn’t offer the tangible, real-life advice I crave for the quandry: Given the structural difficulty of ‘leaning in,’ How does one find the will to do so? I am just a middle-class woman, not a superpower corporate CEO or international pop star. And practically speaking, who can I look to on a ground level?
It may sound implausible, but as a teenager and a young woman my sense of potential was completely unfettered by nagging ideas of gender inequality. I sailed right through high school with the notion that my success would be an upward trajectory of my own determination, made manifest through effort and merit. I leaned in. I raised my hand. I excelled. It wasn’t until some time around the beginning of my senior year of college that undeniable gender-based distress signals on the horizon began to burst my bubble. Despite that nearly 90 percent of my classmates at Parson’s School of Design were female, we had few women professors. Where were all of my talented classmates disappearing to once they hit the working world? Of all the “stars” in the design world at the time, there were only a few prominent women, mostly childless. Because I am a practical person, I looked for examples of other women who had kids and careers worth emulating. I wasn’t really looking for role models per se, more a semblance of hope that a successful career could encompass a family. I didn’t find too many. But even then, I didn’t worry too much: If there was no path to follow, I felt confident I could make my own.
Though I did not need the encouragement as a younger woman, the situation seemed impossible as a new mom. At 28, I unexpectedly became pregnant with twins, shortly after I started my first real director position at a prominent advertising agency. Surrounded by a culture that rewarded hard-drinking frat-boy types who worked an average of 70 hours a week, I took the pregnancy as a moment to rethink my life choices. As ambitious as ever, I didn’t necessarily want to step out of the game, but that working environment wasn’t healthy for single guys, let alone tired new moms. There were no examples I could look to within the company and the effort of “leaning in” didn’t seem worth the rewards. I did not return to work after my maternity leave. My husband and I both shifted our lives to accommodate the needs of two babies. For a year after my children were born, I cast about looking for ways to engage in my career that felt sustainable.
After eighteen anxious months, I returned to full-time work for Domino Magazine at Conde Nast, again in a leadership role. The staff at the magazine was one percent male. Of the top women on the masthead, four out of five had children. I had a staff of smart and talented young women. There was nothing easy about it, but we supported each other’s various needs by dividing the workload and being flexible with hours when possible. Unfortunately, the magazine closed when the recession hit.
Since then, I’ve been in several leadership positions, and I couldn’t agree more with both Kristof and Sandberg that structural changes are needed. As many people in the “having it all” debate have pointed out, work/life balance is something that non-parents grapple with too. But if we want more women to stick it out and reach leadership levels, we should also do a better job of catching the already ambitious ones at the moment when they are most likely to duck out due to the pressure of motherhood. No matter what commitment you think you have to your career, it’s another story when your 3-year-old clings to you on your way out the door each morning shouting, “Please don’t go to work, Mommy!” or your second grader says, “I wish you didn’t have a job so you could come on the field trips and pick me up after school.”