Opt Out or Lean In?

(Tied for third most viewed. Reposted from December 12, 2014)

Many people seem to think that leaning in and opting out are opposites – either you lean in, or you opt out. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be either or, you can do both.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential.” And then later, “I hope they [my children] end up exactly where they want to be. And when they find where their true passion lies, I hope they both lean in – all the way.”

Now that sounds an awful lot like what the women who opt out do. They opt out in order to opt in to a way of life and working that allows them to be who they are and to work to their full potential on terms that work for them.

I have talked to women who have opted out of jobs or career paths that hold them back. Women are still discriminated in the workplace (although now-a-days it’s generally harder to detect than it used to be) and still get bypassed by their male colleagues. I have talked to women who feel they just can’t be themselves in a corporate environment where they have to keep parts of themselves hidden. It’s ok for work to spill over into the private sphere – we’re expected to answer emails when we’re at home with our kids – but ironically it doesn’t go the other way. Women are expected to keep whatever issues they may have at home or with their children invisible in the workplace.

While Sandberg calls on women to lean in and make a difference, many women don’t feel the effort of trying to change a workplace or working culture to suit them and their needs is worth it, nor do they want to take the risk that it may entail. Not only do they think it’s a lost cause, but they are also genuinely worried that it would harm their careers and their reputations.

One might think that they therefore choose opting out as an easy solution, except that opting out is never easy. It’s a path these women have been compelled to take in order to create a working environment where they have more control over their professional lives, where they can work to their full potential, while seamlessly combining work with other areas of life. In other words, they do this so that they can lean in all the way.

All the women I have talked to have been ambitious and have wanted their work to be meaningful. They want to lean in, but on their own terms. After opting out, these women did not necessarily work less, nor did many of them spend more time with their children. The difference was they had more control over how and when they worked, and how and when they were with their children. Having more control, in turn, entailed less stress. It allowed them to feel passionate about their work, and being passionate about what you do tends to automatically make you want to lean in.

So by all means, do both, opt out and lean in!

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