Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire COO of Facebook, is everywhere these days. Her new book, Lean In, is a smart, strategic guide for women who want to succeed. Be more assertive, conquer your fear, manage your guilt, don't sabotage yourself.
All good advice, in my view. But these days, a lot of smart, highly educated thirtysomething women are having an entirely different conversation. They're not talking about leaning in. They're talking about leaning back.
Many of these women regard themselves as feminists. They're politically progressive, with advanced degrees. They always thought they'd work, that they'd find partners who would share the housework and the child-rearing more or less equally. They married supportive men. And now they have small children, and what they really want to do is stay at home.
"For some women, the solution to resolving the long-running tensions between work and life is not more parent-friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity," Lisa Miller writes in New York magazine. Her article, The Retro Wife, is a sympathetic portrait of Kelly Makino, 33: mother of two, MSW, and primary caretaker of the family. It has kicked up quite a fuss. Ms. Makino quit her job because her family's life was too chaotic. Today, her husband earns all the money and she takes care of everyone – and even though their finances took a hit, they're all much happier.
Personally, I can't imagine a worse fate than being a stay-at-home housewife. But my mom's lot was no picnic, either. As a full-time professional with three kids (and married to a workaholic), she was out the door at 8 and home at 6, with dinner to fix, not enough time for her kids and no time, ever, for herself. And those were the good old days. Today, she'd have a BlackBerry so she could work 24/7.
A lot of women admire Sheryl Sandberg. But a lot more look at her and shudder. Sure, success is great, but at what cost? As tech entrepreneur Wendy Lea told Bloomberg Businessweek about leaning in: "Some days, I feel like I'm falling over." Ms. Lea is turning 60. Many working friends of mine are turning 60, too. Some of them have kids and some don't, but on one thing they agree: They've leaned in all of their lives, and enough's enough.
Flextime and telecommuting have made the working world a friendlier place for some of us. But if you're on the managerial fast track, you're going to work like hell. And today, it's worse than ever. For the modern salaried class, the standard work week starts at 50 hours plus. My friends in client-based businesses such as advertising are on call all the time. Even the management work I used to do in journalism has been transformed by competitive and cost pressures, and by the relentless onslaught of the Internet. I used to get nights and weekends off (mostly). The people who do those jobs today do not. Even when they're off, they're on. Would I want their lives? No way.
Given the realities of the modern workplace, the mystery isn't why there aren't more women at the top but why so many want to get there. "To reject a high-flying career … is not to reject aspiration," Judith Shulevitz writes in The New Republic. "It is to refuse to succumb to a kind of madness."
Most women, if they have the choice, are happy to trade long hours and money for flexibility and control. This explains why nearly a quarter of women who have MBAs and children have dropped out of the work force 15 years after graduation, according to a U.S. study. When these findings were released, they produced much hand-wringing about the failed promise of feminism and lingering discrimination in the workplace. But what they really reflect is women's stronger preference for a balanced life.
High-achieving younger women don't think this is going to happen to them. It takes them by surprise. They get an MBA or law degree, a demanding job and an equal-opportunity husband. And then they have a baby and – wham. As one young mother in her early 30s puts it, "I had no idea I'd be so crazy about my child."
Different attitudes toward work seem to be an irreducible difference between the sexes. The more choices women have, the more they'd prefer to stay at home. Those dropout MBA moms are often married to MBA dads who earn even more money and work longer hours than their wives did. A new Pew Research survey on modern parenthood found that only 31 per cent of women who say they "live comfortably" think that working at a full-time job is ideal. When researchers asked the same question of married mothers, only 23 per cent said a full-time job was their ideal. The same survey also found a "significant happiness gap" between working and non-working mothers – 45 per cent of non-working mothers say they're very happy, compared with 31 per cent of mothers who work either full or part time.
The secret to happiness is different for us all, of course. I like working (but then again, I have the world's best job). Yet, for many women, maybe the secret to happiness isn't what we thought it was after all. Maybe they don't want to lean in. Maybe they really want to lean back. And if that's the case, our advice should be the same as the advice we give to future Sheryl Sandbergs: You go, girl.