Lean In, Lean Out, or Fall Over?

One of the most awesome things about being a white male is that I can write about minority issues or women’s issues with complete confidence, because I’m a white male and therefore automatically knowledgeable about such things. I’ve been told this is the very definition of entitlement, which is what I’ve been saying all along… I am entitled to write about the issues and experiences of other people in a knowing if slightly condescending way.

So… chick stuff.

In case you live under a rock, Lean In is the best-selling book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is the kind of woman that other women line up to hate on.

It’s easy to see why.

If Sheryl underwent gender re-assignment surgery and became Shane Sandberg, he would be an alpha male. Ambitious, driven, professionally successful, great home life… men would be lining up to learn how he did it. Except he is a she, and when you say “she is ambitious and driven” it sounds like you’re describing Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct.

Maybe not with the psychotic murderer thing, but you never know.

The point from Lean In as I understand it is that right when women should be reaching the prime of their career, they chose to step back. The reasons for this are varied but tend to center around expectations, both of themselves and what women feel others expect of them.

I have been in an interesting place these past few months because I’ve gone from being under-employed to un-employed to now insanely busy. Mrs. Nostrikethat has felt the impact as she has picked up all of the slack. Everything from 100% car pool duties to remembering to drag the trash cans out Thursday night. I have been able to lean-in precisely because I have a dedicated home team propping me up.

So how does it work in reverse?

Let me ask the question another way: if someone leans in, doesn’t someone else have to lean out?

I remember one incident from my recent past. I was with the client trying desperately to finish up a major project by the deadline. At the same time, I had made a commitment to Mrs. Nostrikethat to be home by 5:30 at the absolute latest so she could make it to her class. As the day dragged on, it became increasingly apparent that we weren’t going to get done in time to allow me to make it home. I was confronted with a choice: do I tell a new client while I am still in “trial mode” that “I’m sorry, I know we’re almost done, but I have to stop working right now and go home?” or do I bounce a check to the Bank of Wife and hope for the best?

I opted for the latter.

It wasn’t pretty.

I was late, she was late, everyone was grumpy. But the key point in this story is that I had the luxury to make that choice precisely because my partner leaned out and was already home with the kids. If I was a single parent I wouldn’t have that choice– daycares aren’t very forgiving when it comes to leaving your kids there all night. By necessity, I would have to lean out and “mommytrack” myself- take a less demanding, less visible job that had stable hours and less variability to the work.

Now let’s say that at some point in the future Mrs. Nostrikethat decides to relaunch her career. There is still roughly the same amount of work to be done. Milk must be bought, kids must be picked up from school when they’re sick, laundry must be laundered. She can’t lean out when she’s just starting to lean in again, so I have to be the one to pick up the to-do list for the family unit. No amount of time management skills will help in dealing with the variability that is children.

Until we as a culture collectively decide that long hours are not the currency of professional success nothing is really going to change for women, because the men in their lives won’t have the option to pick up the slack.

What do you think?