Guest post: Leaning in doesn’t work for everyone

This is a guest post from Tira Harpaz. Harpaz is a graduate of Princeton University and Fordham Law School and the mother of three children. She was formerly a Senior Attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell and she is currently the founder and president of CollegeBound Advice, an independent college counseling firm.  This is her first article for Feministing.

Lean In. It seems like everyone is talking, blogging or arguing about it. Sheryl Sandberg’s well-written, chatty, and informative book purports to give useful advice for women of all age brackets, “from those who are just starting out to those who are taking a break and may want to jump back in.” However, Sandberg seems to miss the mark for a certain segment of the female population: my demographic, the 50- to 60-ish mom who either gave up her career to stay home with her kids or reduced her workload during their formative years, and is now looking to re-enter the workforce or ramp up her job.

There are lots of stay-at-home moms – according to the Census Bureau, approximately 5 million in 2011 and countless others who work part-time or run small businesses from their homes – but there isn’t much information or guidance about re-launching a career at an age when many people your age are thinking of retirement. Often, when I speak to other women who took the same path I did, we are baffled by how we got here and what to do now. For example, Marie, is a 61-year-old from New York, has three kids and worked throughout her life. However, she cut back significantly when her kids were home. Now, she’s going through a divorce, and she will have to make almost double the amount of money she made in the past in order to make it through the rest of her life in any semblance of comfort.  I myself stopped working as a lawyer to stay home with my children, but started my own college consulting business about seven years ago. Now that my kids are out of the house, I’m working on expanding the business, but at 58, it’s not that simple.

Leaning in isn’t really an option for women like Marie and me, because frankly, it’s not even that easy to get someone to take our calls. In a world where newly minted JDs can’t get jobs, and college graduates are willing to take extended unpaid internships, very few employers have an interest in a fifty something-year-old woman who has been out of the workforce for fifteen years and would now like a paying job. Hiring managers, facing a wave of thousands of well-qualified candidates, are going to toss out ones that try to substitute PTA executive board skills for work experience (and that’s assuming the resume even makes it through the computer algorithms that select a handful to be perused by a real person). Reading Sandberg’s prescriptions — get a mentor, don’t ever exclude options, lose your shyness and be assertive, negotiate like a man, marry a man willing to change diapers — I feel like I’m listening to a well-meaning yet clueless relative.

Women over 55 are generally ignored if they don’t have good jobs, lots of money, social standing, or powerful husbands. While this so-called “invisibility” problem  has been well documented (just google “invisibility older women” and you’ll find a host of articles and blogs), today’s world seems fixated on youth, good looks and viral fame. Older women generally don’t elicit a second glance – we seem to have a sell by date and after that we’re pretty disposable – and to me, that lack of interest  coupled with a resume that might have some blank spots, spells trouble if you’re trying to lean in.

Now, I know that Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t claim to have all the answers for everyone (not even herself). And I equally recognize that there might not be much sympathy for women like me, who had the financial resources to drop out of the workforce, and now seem to be complaining about the ramifications. However, for my demographic, it’s not just an issue of self-worth or time on our hands (in that case, we could probably find a volunteer organization that would welcome our help). Many women of my age are facing divorce, husbands losing jobs, financial difficulties due to health needs of their parents, and a host of other issues. Although we were able to take time to raise our children, many of us need jobs now, and just can’t get them. And leaning in, at least as Sandberg describes it, won’t really work. “‘Excel and you will get a mentor,’” she exclaims. But since many of us aren’t working or are self-employed, it’s difficult to shine or show that you’re worth taking the time to mentor (not to mention the question of whether a younger person would feel comfortable or want to bother mentoring an older person). Sandberg says that “everyone should have an eighteen-month plan,” consisting of business goals, such as setting targets for your team, and personal goals.

That’s excellent advice, but while personal goals are manageable (I can lose weight or learn how to use Excel), in the world we live in (and when you don’t have a team to manage or a project to oversee), there is a strong possibility that even the best plans or efforts of the over-50 woman will not reap the desired objective of a good job or a more profitable business. Most of the women I know are taking the right steps. We are told to stay positive, and reach out to everyone we know, and we do. We are told to start our own businesses, and some of us do, although many of these businesses are not successful enough to pay a living wage. We are told to learn how to use social media tools, and we try. We are told that we should have kept up our job skills and our networking, and we feel ashamed that we didn’t. Yes, it would be wonderful if we were more assertive, but it’s hard to feel confident all the time when the job market and indeed the world keeps reminding you that you’re no longer as young, as skilled or as vital as you were.

So, the next time Sheryl tells me to join a lean in circle or marry the right man, maybe I’ll tell her that while I’m willing to lean in, most of the time I’m just trying to hold on.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    You chose your choice. You get the good and bad consequences of that decision.

    • Posted March 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      ‘Choice’ is a loaded term in a culture that strongly prescribes expectations and roles for women. In many ways true ‘choice’ has little to do with the paths people take in life.

  2. Posted March 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    you raise many worthwhile issues- getting a job and finding a mentor (among many other things) when you are in the mid to late 50′s- or beyond- is far different than when in your 20′s and 30′s

  3. Posted March 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    This is so true, especially that last line. I’m one of those over-50 women plugging away at a home business (freelance writing, because, yeah, that’s where the big bucks are) and all this talk about Leaning In has me feeling more than a little left out.

  4. Posted March 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this.

    One interesting question raised for me is the extent to which the predicament many women find themselves in after their 20s is the RESULT of “leaning in” by trying to compete in professional roles that are simply not possible for them to succeed at without the support structure men in those roles traditional had and continue to have (i.e., wives who stay home and run their lives for them). Coming from a professional background similar to the author, I know first hand that even if you split home responsibilities 50/50 with a spouse, you are just not going to be able to work 22 hour days as well as the dude with a SAH wife. And in retrospect on my own career, if I had appreciated that dynamic, I would not have wasted time in jobs where having a full-time support person was such a huge advantage.

    So I really think the key is not to try to beat these folks at their own game by leaning in, but to try to think through the kind of work environment where you can minimize being disadvantaged by not being a dude with a SAH wife. I’m glad to see recently the proliferation of women-owned law firms, because I think the law is a field with a particularly acute problem in this area. And data shows young women lawyers are increasingly avoiding biglaw practice for this reason, which I actually think is great.

  5. Posted March 22, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Very insightful and definitely scary how many women this applies to – my mother is experiencing a similar challenge at the same time as I start my career. It’s frightening how much opportunity and perspective changes based on age (we have very similar academic backgrounds).

    As the child, and one of the reasons she made the choice to take time off from her career, it’s very strange seeing my competent, intelligent mother at a complete loss for what to do while my “leaning in” has come relatively quickly and easily.

  6. Posted March 22, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Great article! “Leaning In” is obviously a catchy phrase, but the reality is that it doesn’t work for everyone – this is a valuable perspective that isn’t talked about enough.

  7. Posted March 23, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tira, for articulating so well what so many of us have been experiencing.

  8. Posted March 24, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Smart, well-written, and important to think about. Thanks for writing.

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