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.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 26, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Overall, this is a great piece, and I thank you for it. But if I may offer a suggestion, saying “Who doesn’t want more time for sex?” in such a flippant manner seems to assume that all people want sex. That is not true, and those kinds of assumptions marginalize asexual and sex-averse people. If you really want to be more inclusive, please don’t use language that assumes all people want the same things when it comes to sex.

  2. Posted February 27, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    It’s not just important for feminism – though it is important to feminism – that we stop treating work like people ought to be required to live it their entire lives.

    We’ve had decades of exponentially-increasing productivity and corporate profits without a matching increase in wages, and it’s strangling the workers of America. It’s strangling women, who work with all they are then go home and do disproportionate amounts of housework and family rearing, faster, but it’s strangling all workers.

    EVERYONE needs to take a step back and stop working so damn hard. Everyone. At once. Because if only a few people do it, those people will just get fired and replaced with people who will keep destroying themselves to hold onto a job that doesn’t actually appreciate them. And we all need to keep not working so damn hard until our employers start to give us a slice of the pie our hard work keeps making bigger.

  3. Posted February 27, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I agree that this is a problem that affects our culture as a whole, but there’s a clear case that it effects women especially. Whether women have children or not, they are often dealing with challenges at work that make it harder for them to step back. Women often feel they have to work even harder to prove themselves. I’ve seen it as a manager supervising men and women doing the same job. I wrote about it here: http://ow.ly/u4SEW

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