Enough with the Leaning Already!

By Scott Behson, PhD

Ever since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched the best-selling book and cultural phenomenon “Lean In”, it seems as if every week there’s a blog post, op-ed or magazine article riffing on the “Lean In” metaphor while attempting to either criticize, comment on, or add something to Sandberg’s message. Here’s my call to move on to the next stage in resolving work and family dilemmas.

I’m confused. Lean In. No, Lean Out. No, Lean Together. No, Lean Whichever Way the Wind Blows. No, Recline. No, Stretch Out.

Am I alone in thinking we’ve exhausted the possible variations of the “leaning” metaphor?

There’s no doubt Sandberg started an important conversation. She raises so many important and evocative issues and, I must admit, has a killer book title. So, with imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it makes a lot of sense that writers and thought leaders would use her work as a jumping off point for their additional contributions.

(I must confess that I riffed on “Lean In” for a HBR article in which I advocated for a balanced approach to career planning, and I was also part of a “Lean In” discussion panel on HuffPost Live.)

At first, many of the subsequent “Lean In-ish” articles made excellent points. Here are two of the best:

Leaning Together, (March 2013 in the Huffington Post) by Lisa Belkin, expanded on Sandberg’s now-famous advice that “the most important career decision a woman makes is who she marries”—Meaning that career success and work-life balance for women become much easier or harder depending on how supportive their husbands are. This is a really important point, and since this Belkin’s was one of the first instances of a prominent work-family expert commenting on “Lean In,” it made an important contribution.

Lean Out, the cover story in the June 2013 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek discussed the work-family challenges faced by working dads who feel pressure to be “all in” for work, even as they take on more shared parenting and housework duties at home. As this is the subject of my writing, academic and professional work, I was thrilled at the high-profile recognition of fathers’ work-family concerns, which have been neglected for too long.

After these about a kajillion more “Lean-In-ish” articles were written, and it seemed that each successive iteration made less of a unique contribution and had less of a connection to the original subject matter. Many seemed titled and written primarily to attract clicks and eyeballs.

So, I audibly groaned when four Facebook friends, five Twitter connections, two work colleagues and even my wife sent me the link to Rosa Brooks’ recent op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “Recline.”

Oy, another “Lean in” riff, I said to myself.

I initially grumbled at some of those who shared the piece, but they assured me that “Recline” was right up my alley as a long-time advocate for work-family balance.

In fact, once I got past the title, Brooks’ article was actually pretty great.

Brooks contends that working 80 hours a week to climb the corporate ladder is a sucker’s game for women, especially as few will be able to maintain that pace because they shoulder the family load at home. She states that women will never get ahead unless something is done about excessive workplace expectations. Brooks also contends that Sandberg’s advice to career-oriented women does nothing to change the structural and cultural barriers to achieving corporate success along with a full life.

I don’t agree that excessive time demands are exclusively a woman’s concern, considering the ubiquity of dual-parent shared care households and the fact that today’s working dad is more concerned with work-family balance, and, in fact, does triple the childcare and double the housework of dads a generation ago. But, overall, Brooks makes an important point.

I agree that, under present conditions, there’s only so much an individual can do to achieve a workable work-life balance. (Unlike Brooks, I don’t fault Sandberg for failing to address these issues. “Lean In” covers many important topics and there’s only so much you can tackle in one book.)

The next step is to advocate for structural changes to better enable women and men, moms and dads, to achieve success in their careers while also having time for life and family. The individual struggling with work-family balance is on board. Now, we need corporate cultures, societal expectations and public policy to adapt.

We’re already leaning as hard as we can. We need the world to lean with us.

© Scott Behson


Scott Behson, PhD, is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a busy involved dad, and an overall grateful guy. He runs Fathers, Work, and Family, a blog dedicated to helping fathers better balance work and family, and encouraging more supportive workplaces. He also writes on work and family issues for Harvard Business Review (HBR) Blogs and The Good Men Project. He lives in Nyack, NY with his wife, Amy, and son, Nick. Contact him on Twitter (@ScottBehson), Facebook, LinkedIn or email.