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Image / Editorial

Having it all? Michelle Obama thinks Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘leaning in’ just doesn’t work


by Jennifer McShane
05th Dec 2018
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The fact that women are supposed to aspire to ‘have it all’ while men are essentially encouraged to do one thing at a time (namely climb the career ladder before starting a family ever enters the picture) is a topic never far from public debate. Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women around the globe in 2013 to ‘lean in’ – push harder to make room for more women in the workplace. Be more assertive, support each other and by leaning in, this will help you find that elusive work/life balance. Sandberg started a movement using those two simple words. On the surface, she meant well; she wanted to inspire more women to climb to positions of authority and power in business because there weren’t enough of us in them. This, we can agree, she was right about. The whole idea was that we could use this theory to chase after our dream jobs, position ourselves more predominantely among the men at the table.

But the other side to her theory was hugely problematic. It drew controversy for implying that women were holding themselves back from their careers and the fact that she had, seemingly unintentionally, added more pressure to women by making their failure to ascend to leadership a fault.

“I continue to be alarmed not just at how we as women fail to put ourselves forward, but also at how we fail to notice and correct for this gap,” Sandberg wrote. Leaning back, she argued, was preventing us from having it all. By choosing a family over a career, or not pushing for a loving partner and a high-powered dream job, we were selling ourselves short; preventing each and every box getting ticked off. “Often without even realising it, women stop reaching for new opportunities. … By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career than she would have been had she not leaned back.”

To be fair, Sandberg, after a devastating tragedy in which she suddenly lost her husband, acknowledged that the theory wasn’t without its faults. But her mark was made; arguably her brand of feminism, according to some, really only encouraged the white working woman to get richer without challenging patriarchal structures of power.

But this week, I let out a cheer when everyone’s favourite woman, Michelle Obama signalled the death knell for Lean In feminism by publically outing what most of us know to be true – having it all – even if you lean so far in you fall over – isn’t possible.

“That whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that s**t doesn’t work all the time.”

She spoke during an appearance at Barclays Center in Brooklyn during her Becoming book tour. She’s affirming that it’s not a feasible expectation to have it all – something she went through herself while her husband Barack went off to forge his political mark to a presidency and she was left to take care of and do most of the worrying when it came to their two daughters and their disrupted world.

 I’m glad she swore while saying this to emphasise the point – even when she wasn’t supposed to.

She apologised for swearing, saying she “forgot where she was” but didn’t walk back her sentiment. “I’m back now,” the former First Lady said. “But sometimes that stuff doesn’t work.”

Sheryl Sandberg will probably always lean in (and more power to her that she can) but I’m glad to live in a world where a woman like Michelle Obama has said the words that will help women everywhere.

Because God knows that we’re under enough pressure as it is.

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