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Monday, March 25, 2013

Either "Don't Leave Before You Leave" or "REALLY Leave Before You Leave"

I read Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" over the weekend, and liked it very much.  Without writing a full book review here, I'll just say that I think several of the major criticisms of the book over-simplify its message.  (As one article noted, the book has "field[ed] criticism from across the ideological spectrum," with some arguing that Sandberg fails to recognize that women might not be as interested in high-powered careers, and others arguing that Sandberg overlooks the structural workplace problems that hold women back.)  In the book, Sandberg explicitly acknowledges that not all women (or men!) want high-powered careers and that external barriers exist for those who do.  That said, she has specific advice to offer one particular group -- women who are interested in pursuing leadership roles at work -- and I think that's an important and laudable focus for a 172-page book.

One aspect of Sandberg's advice -- her "don't leave before you leave" theme -- got me thinking.  Essentially, Sandberg argues that even before they get pregnant, women planning to have children sometimes start to scale back in the workplace, making various accommodations and sacrifices (e.g., not applying for a new, more demanding leadership position) so that they will have the right structure in place when they do have kids and want to combine work with family.  Ironically, Sandberg observes, these choices often result in a job that is less fulfilling and engaging--one to which they are less motivated to return after they do have a child and take maternity leave.  "Women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they did to stay in the workforce," she writes, urging women not to scale back until they actually need to. 

To this advice, I'd add another observation, and I'm interested in whether others agree: I've observed numerous professional women stay in jobs that they're not that thrilled about because they're planning to have kids soon anyway, and figure it makes more sense to stick it out until they get pregnant, go out on maternity leave (especially if their employer offers a generous paid maternity leave), and then assess how they want to re-enter the work force.   The problem, similar to the one that Sandberg observed, is that when their maternity leave is up, they don't have a job that they're excited to go back to, and the thought of embarking on a new job search -- especially with the new family responsibilities that will have to be balanced with a brand-new position -- is daunting.  In the decade since I graduated from law school, it seems to me that the women who've attained the best work/family balance have been the ones who were already in a job that they genuinely liked, and in which they'd begun to establish themselves, before they got pregnant.  So, to Sandberg's "don't leave before you leave," I would say, "yes, if you're in a job that you like" -- but if not, try to "really leave before you leave" by finding something new.

Posted by Emily Gold Waldman on March 25, 2013 at 12:49 PM | Permalink

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