What if we all leaned out, instead of leaning in?

Recliner chairIn response to Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in,” Rosa Brooks offers a counter-suggestion:

Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.

We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.

Here’s the thing: We’ve managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.


If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don’t suffer as much as women when they’re exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family. Whether it’s one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, “Enough!”

I’m definitely on board.

Brooks rightly explains that “as long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and childcare,”–which, despite significant gains, we still are–“women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity.” But, as she emphasizes, both genders are hurt by a culture that demands so much damn leaning. In the year and half since Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece caused a websplosion on “having it all,” there’ve been some much-needed convos about how (lack of) work-life balance sucks for everyone–not just women. And while Brooks ends with a call for men to join the fight “to lean out in solidarity, for their own sake as well as ours,” I’m getting tired of reading articles like these that are consistently addressed to “the ladies”–even when, as in Brooks’ case, they are explicitly saying it’s not just about “the ladies.” I mean, obviously it’s fine–important, even–to highlight how the gendered dynamics here mean that women, on the whole, are impacted disproportionately. But in terms of actually combating this “culture of ubiquity,” I think a gender-neutral appeal to self-interest–like, say, who doesn’t want more time for sex?–is just more likely to be effective. 

It’s also important to note how differences in class and race mean that folks have wildly different abilities to “fight for our right to lean out.” To Brooks’ credit, she frames this is a collective battle, but to some extent, I think any reaction to “leaning in” will inevitably echo the main problem with Sandberg’s advice–namely that it focuses on individual behavior, rather than structural problems. And if  the advice to “lean in” is only really relevant for pretty privileged women, that’s probably even more true of “recline.” For a lucky few in elite, high-paying professions, some of this leaning may be self-imposed, but for most workers this is not as much about a “culture of ubiquity” as it is about actual work policies that give people little choice in the matter. I mean, a quarter of Americans always go to work when they’re sick, for God’s sake. I don’t think that’s just because they’re super ambitious.

That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s important to challenge the cultural expectations around work and parenting of the most privileged, as Brooks articulately does. I think it’s super important. These norms are influential, trickling down through all sectors of the economy and dictating the structures and policies–written and unwritten–that affect the least privileged too. I guess I’m just impatient–I’d like to start talking more about how we actually change the structures. Stephanie Cootnz has argued, “Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values.” And the movement to lean out must be similarly focused on systemic change.

But I guess the first step is getting folks on the recline train, so go read Brooks’ piece. And once we’re all on board, let’s talk about what collective resistance actually looks like.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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