Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Truths, universally acknowledged?

I wonder how Austen would re-write her opening line of P&P these days: maybe ""It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good career must be in want of a equality-minded spouse?" The words may have changed, but the rigidity of social convention has not in some ways.

I've been meaning to get down on paper (e-paper?) my thoughts about Sheryl Sandberg for awhile, but frankly haven't had a spare minute and also wanted to be able to give these thoughts enough time to coalesce into something coherent (well, hopefully) and not too personal.

First things first: I am a big poser. I haven't read Sandberg's book yet. But the world being what it is these days, I have been assaulted by interviews with her, and reflections on the book and said interviews, across different media for several weeks. Being a woman in her (almost) mid-thirties (wow, that's scary...), I am right at that point in life that Sheryl seems to be focusing her attention on. My contemporaries and I are at that moment of leaning in, or leaning back. And I am certainly feeling it.

So this is as personal as I am going to get: I have had acquaintances pat my stomach and wish me "all the best" in my future. Friends have been visibly deflated when I tell them I have news and then add that I am the youngest and newest manager at work. I've been told I have "plenty of time" and "not much time left - what are you waiting for?" Media tells me any future kids of mine, with their geriatric parents, will be at higher risk of autism and maybe schizophrenia. Even Margaret Wente chimes in with maternal advice (a sure sign the conversation is taking a turn for batshit-crazy). Meanwhile, I have friends who were told they committed career suicide when they "leaned back" ever so slightly for a bit after returning from maternity leave.

Even Sandberg got slashed: Gloria Steinem points out that some of the backlash against Sandberg might stem from the fact that "for a woman to be loved, she has to fail, and for a man to be loved, he has to succeed. That’s what the gender police say, and it’s inhuman and unfair to both men and women." Sometimes the world bites back either way: Lean in? Get criticised. Lean back so you don't fail miserably? Get criticised.

As Meg Seitz observed, "I'm harder on myself than anyone else could ever be on me [....] Then, it occurred to me: All my confusion had nothing to do with me. It was about other people. It was about what I thought other people would want me to do." Sandberg adds, via her 60 Minutes interview, that women are often pitted against one another, when ultimately "every woman I know feels guilty about the choices she makes."

And so....

I am becoming self-aware enough to know that I am freaking out, and that I do put more pressure on myself than anyone else ever could. I am comforted by the thought that I am not the only one freaking out. I find solace in thoughtful reflections by other women, most notably recently Elsa Walsh's piece in the Washington Post, a piece brought to my attention by an amazing American librarian friend of mine who works as a regional Foreign Service librarian.

Says Walsh about the recent feminist discussion populated by big names such as Marissa Mayer, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sandberg, "I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top [....] I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday.There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work."

And then I felt like I was doing ok. I don't have it all figured out. I'm not where I thought I would be, or even entirely where I want to be. I'm still on the right path, though. I felt a little less alone. I realised I at least am living a reasonably balanced life so far: yeah, I put in some extra hours, but not regularly and generally for a good cause. I love what I do, every single day. I find meaning and joy in it, and I feel valued and supported. When I leave work at 5 pm (ish), I have people waiting for me who also make me feel valued and supported, in different ways. Having seen good friends and close family die far too young, I am mindful of the fact that I will die some day, and I want to leave more than a few memos for senior management in my wake. I have tremendous role models at home and at work. I have a plan. It may not work out, and it has already changed a few times, but it's there, a work in progress. I am in control of as much as I can be, and I am training myself in habits that I think will stand me in good stead over the years.

Like Walsh, I agree with Sandberg's statement that "marriage is the biggest career decision you will make." Sandberg definitely makes that sound unromantic, but in a sense it's quite accurate: your partner is the one who will have your back, so choose wisely. You can't both be sprinting down the career highway without a rock-solid plan. Maybe you can't both be sprinting at the same time, period.

At the risk of being repetitive, here's a final quote from Walsh's article that really spoke to me, especially the part about planning, and the part about love:

"When it is time for my daughter to make her way through this culture of overwork, I hope she follows some of Sandberg’s advice. I will tell her to work hard and take a seat at the table, speak up and, of course, always negotiate her salary. But I will also tell her to set her own course and follow neither my model nor Sandberg’s [....] I’ll also tell her to make time for herself. Unplug from the grid. Carve out space for solitude. Search for work you love that allows flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them when you’re older, after you’ve reached that point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start planning, because no one else is going to do it for you. And don’t quit completely because, as wonderful as parenthood is, it cannot and will not be your whole life. Learn how to manage conflict, because the greater the level you can tolerate, the more freedom you will retain. Making compromises is a healthy approach to living.  For a woman to say she is searching for a “good enough” life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.  I’d also tell her, if she marries, to work hard on her relationship. It’s not only much easier than getting divorced, it’s more rewarding and more fun. Love. Full stop. That’s what matters."


  1. Very insightful and thought-provoking. I am closer to the age of Walsh (turning 50 this year) and my plans have changed radically over the years. In the end, we decided not to have children, which was a difficult decision that I still question. I try to get that maternal fix through my friends and siblings kids, but I know it isn't the same. And yet my career is growing satisfactorily, but not always without bumps and regrets along the way. There are still many things in both my personal life and professional life that I am not sure of, and I am not as confident as I know intellectually that I should be. Thanks again Alex for getting me thinking.

  2. I feel more comfortable with this part of my life or lack there of. I may one day meet someone who supports me and whom I can support, but that hasn't happened and it is not because I am not a wonderful person deserving of it. As I turn the clock on 40 this year, I think the window for children has officially closed and that is a bit sad, but it just isn't my path. I have actually chosen to "lean in" to friendships and other connections in a way that was never part of my life before and I am grateful for this gift that I am giving myself. The women I admire are kind, generous and full. I know now not to pursue anything that doesn't bring me closer to being one of these women because anything less will leave me unfulfilled.

  3. congrats alex!

  4. Funny I should catch up on blog post readings, and fall on this one after a career planning workshop. Very timely. While I walked out of my workshop certain that I was in the profession and organization I should be in, my mind also swirled with some of the reflections you've posted. The workshop participants were very much at a stage in their career where they had been in their job or department for a fairly long time and now felt they needed a change, or thought they needed to start thinking of leadership and moving up. The complexities of your reflections are not addressed in such a workshop, but were very present in my mind as a 29 year old professional. The workshop revealed signs of great leadership potential. Now my mind swirls with questions of timing and balance of things personal and professional (which sometimes slightly blur when you love what you do). Thank you for your post!

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