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Lean In, Just Don’t Tip Over

Last week I silently observed the Lean In movement unfold and national reaction to it. I thought there was going to be a feminist/mommy war implosion! After x millennia walking this earth, women still can’t agree, even amongst themselves, what the model for female accomplishment looks like. With a great deal of hand-wringing, high achieving women decry the dearth of women at the CEO level, while others mourn the want of stay-at-home mothers wholly devoted to churning out well-mannered drones to serve society. There is one camp that says that we must all choose for ourselves what “success” is, and that seems to be the most rational line of thinking as far as I’m concerned.

Because me? I’m just trying to get by the best way I know how. I didn’t go to university and spend $60,000 (before interest) on a degree to sit at home and clean up kid poo, but sometimes you find yourself on an unanticipated one-way rabbit trail. The faster you power through it and get back on track, the better you’ll feel – or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. It helps me get by.

The Lean In movement is all about changing that thinking. On its surface, it’s pretty inspirational stuff; like Girl Power all grown up and on steroids. Sheryl Sandberg penned a book under the same title and encourages women to get out there and push through glass ceilings and fight their way to the top of their career path. I confess that I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say for certainty what she has to say about lean in options for women like me – who have part time jobs and work at home full time – but from the interviews, I didn’t see much. It seems like the attention is focused on women who have chosen careers at the expense of family, which is fine if that’s what a woman wants.

Where I think Lean In misses the mark is that it glosses over some important and unavoidable factors, such as the presence and reactions of men, female biology, and other women. In order for a woman to be ‘successful’ she will have to overpower all these things, otherwise she will end up tipping over when her life spins out of balance.

In order to lean in successfully, we have to start fostering girls’ interests in non-traditional roles early. Sandberg made a statement during her segment on the Katie Curic show that I couldn’t help but scoff at.

“If you decided to take time off to become a mom, don’t apologize for that,” she pleaded. “Go into that interview confidently and explain that decision. Being a stay at home mom is truly the hardest thing a person can do. You have to learn time management skills, planning, forecasting, and managing groups of (unruly) people.”

Yes, well every stay-at-home mom and I know that, but a recruiter/employer either doesn’t know or don’t care. How do I know that? Because I was that 20-something ‘recruiter’ throwing SAHM resumes in the trash under the direction of my manager.

“The thing about working moms is that their kid is always going to get sick or they’re going to have a recital to go to,” said my boss at a hiring firm once.

“Okay…well what about this woman,” I asked. “She’s explained the gap in her employment and listed that she’s been at home for 15 years and is ready to re-enter the work force.”

“15 years!” he choked. “Can you imagine how much her skills have atrophied? Put it in the trash, Malaka.”

And so that’s what I did. Every time I saw a gap in a woman’s resume – or made a phone call to get her to explain the gap during which time she revealed that she was a SAHM – I put her resume in the trash as I conditioned to do. It didn’t matter if her degree or previous expertise was in a desired skill set. Those skill sets had presumably ‘atrophied’. How is such a woman going to walk into an interview confidently if she couldn’t even GET to the interview stage?

One of the reasons I love being a Black woman is that we are virtually invisible to White men. White men will say things around Black women that they would never say in the presence of White women, and vice versa, I’m sure. Being invisible is how you learn things. Do you doubt it? How do you think slaves learned to read on the plantation? By fanning the Massa’s chil’ren during tutoring time and sitting in on lessons in the big house! I digress.

So I was sitting at the receptionist’s chair one afternoon and the manager for an IT recruiting firm walks into the hallway. He sees Chris, one of his recruiters, and stops him to see how filling a requisition was going.

“I’ve got this great candidate, but I’m not so sure about her,” said Chris.

“Oh yeah? Why?” asks Tom (the manager).

“Well we got to talking and she mentioned that she just got engaged…”

Tom cut him off.

“Oh that’s the kiss of death!” he nearly spat. “All she’s gonna be doing is planning her wedding on company time, surfin’ the internet and taking long lunch breaks to look for swatches. I never hire a girl for an IT position if she’s got an engagement ring on her finger.”

As if seeing me for the first time, he turned to smile at me and the two of them left for lunch together. I learned several things that day. They should be obvious to you as a reader as well.

If we want women to nudge their way to the top, we’ll have to learn early on that we’re not going to get there with so-called “soft skills.” We will have to develop hard to find skills with unquestionable value. That means more girls in math and sciences. A woman with a degree in marketing is darn near disposable. My degree is in PR. Think anyone is banging down my door to get me into the hot seat? I’m an excellent employee, but do companies neeeeed my degree? Short answer: nope. If I had gone to school to be a surgeon, that would be a different story.

Here is the conclusion I’ve come to: If a woman wants to have it “all”, she’s going to have to make it all herself. Unlike men, are lives are set by a biological alarm clock at virtually every stage. Menstrual cycles, windows conceiving and birthing, menopause…all these things affect when we can do what we want to do. That’s why I believe women entrepreneurship is so vital if you want to be a working mom. You have to set your own tone and pace, otherwise you run the risk of tipping over into despair while attempting to lean your way to the top in order to fulfill some other person’s vision for their company.

mm My concern about these fad feminist movements is that because they are driven by women of privilege and means, they tend to drown out the voices of the masses. We are the mainstream, but because we don’t have access to national platforms like the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers do, it is accepted that they speak for and behalf of the majority of women. These women are the exception, not the rule. I believe that their messaging is adding another layer of already rife discontent within the female culture in this country, although I’m sure it is not their intent. That discontent is the ‘tipping over’ I’ve been referring to, which ultimately can lead to regret. The fact is, they live in a different world than the majority of us, and in many ways are indeed out of touch.

But by all means, lean in ladies! Just calculate the momentum with which you do so.

Get your coffee. I want to hear what you think.