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!

Who wants balance anyway?

The other day, a friend of mine told me that work-life balance is getting old. That no one really wants to talk about work-life balance anymore. Now, I don’t think that is necessarily true; I find that lots of people still want to talk about work-life balance. But personally, I found my friend’s point of view quite refreshing, because without being able to really put my finger on why, I don’t really want to talk about work-life balance myself. Not that I usually do, but I do regularly find myself dragged into discussions on work-life balance and I always think there is something in these discussions that just doesn’t feel quite right.

I have previously explored how focusing on work-life balance can be problematic when studying women and work. Within feminist research it is seen as problematic because it can lead to the assumption that the only constraint on women’s careers is childcare, as opposed to things like discrimination and gender norms. And indeed, it is often women who search for balance, what with their double shifts. That is, the women who do a full day of work at work more often than not then come home to do another full day of household chores and care responsibilities etc. (See Arlie Hochschild’s book The Second Shift, which although over a couple of decades old continues to be a very good and relevant book.)

But it wasn’t until last night when I was talking to my husband about balance that I realized that the reason I feel sort of bored with this whole concept is that I personally don’t actually really want balance in my life. When looking back at my life so far, the times I have felt most happy and fulfilled have not been times of perfect balance between work and other areas of life. It has rather been when I have been able to devote myself to whatever it is that makes me tick. I want to be all consumed by whatever it is that I find exciting (at the moment that happens to be my research). And then at times I also want to be able to prioritize other things that are important to me, or when I need to, without feeling guilty.

To be honest, my life sometimes feels completely out of balance, but that doesn’t necessarily make me less happy. For example, I tend to write ideas for blog posts on paper napkins in the kitchen while cooking dinner for the kids because that’s often when these ideas come to me; I work on weekends; I typically read work related stuff in bed before turning the lights out; and then there was the time a couple of weeks ago when I had the stomach flu but still feverishly engaged in debate on feminism on social media. I think that would probably not be considered a balanced lifestyle, but who cares, I love it and that’s exactly the way I want it.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many people feel overwhelmed – I know that I sometimes do – and I know that many struggle to manage all the different areas of their lives. But even though it may seem like it, I don’t think searching for balance is necessarily the answer. Like I’ve said before, people who feel fulfilled usually don’t have issues with balance (see my posts The irony of work-life balance and Control). At least it isn’t how I want to live my life. I don’t just want to keep my balance, I want to love what I do, and I want to look at my life and realize that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and not worry about whether I am dividing my time equally between work and life. Besides, doesn’t it strike you as a bit backward? Work-life balance sort of implies that work isn’t a part of life. But work is very much a part of life. I want to feel alive while I’m working, and I’m lucky to have work that gives me energy instead of sucking it out of me. But I also want to be able to seamlessly combine all the things that are important in my life, which are my family, my friends, my work, and my hobbies. I mean, what else is there? Oh right, sleep. I do need more sleep.

Guilt, care, and time with loved ones

I was in Glasgow last week at the BSA (British Sociological Association) conference and as a result my head is spinning with plans and ideas for my research. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of interesting people and have had some really good conversations. But as I sit here and reflect over the conference there is one thing that sticks out in my mind, and that is the word ‘guilt’.

It’s not that I or anyone else was feeling especially guilty at the time, although who knows, that is at least not what we were talking about. No, it came up as a recurring theme when talking about women, work, careers, and mothering.

Now I admit that I have a somewhat unhealthy guilt complex. I sometimes joke that if there is anything that I could possibly feel guilty about, I do, and if there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, I do anyway. I know this is completely irrational and I have gotten better at not feeling so guilty all the time.

One thing that seems to connect women, whether or not they have a career, whether or not they have children, is that they, or rather we, feel way too guilty about too many things. I know I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will so that you know you’re not alone. Here are a few things that you possibly and probably often feel guilty about:

Not being with your kids enough; not being at work enough; not spending enough time with parents/friends/family/loved ones; not getting enough done; not being a good enough mother/daughter/wife/friend; not being attentive enough to others’ needs; not being ambitious enough; not exercising enough; not giving the kids food that is nutritious enough; not monitoring their screen time enough; and not getting enough done although we’re doing all of the above to the best of our ability (yes, really, to the best of our ability, stop beating yourself up) and feeling guilty about it too, which also takes a lot of energy.

I could go on, but there really is no point. The point I wanted to make when listing all these things, is that if you recognize any of these you will know that you are not alone, because unfortunately, this is something I have found in my research: women tend to think it’s just them. That every one else is doing fine, and many women ask themselves, why can’t I handle it when everyone else seems to be able to? The thing is, we’re just really great at keeping it together and putting on a brave face.

So why is this, you ask, why do we feel so guilty? Well, it’s complicated, but the main reasons are cultural and structural. With cultural I mean the way women are brought up and the gendered ideals prevalent in society. And with structural I mean the way we organize society, they way we define work, and the way we continue to put most of the care responsibilities on women. These two are very closely linked.

While women are taught to have it all – a family, a career, and to participate in public debate and policy making – we are also making it difficult for women to do this because of the contradictory messages we send them about femininity and what it means to be a good worker, citizen, woman, and mother. Simply put, women get extremely mixed and contradictory messages regarding what it is that they need to live up to.

Despite gender equality initiatives, which include encouraging men to take paternity leave and participate more in childcare, the change has been and is extremely slow, and women continue to be mainly responsible for care in society. Childcare is also actually only a small part of all the care done in society. Although we mostly think and talk about stressed and sleep deprived mothers of small children when we talk about care, we have other care responsibilities too. Not only are women mainly responsible for childcare, they are also mainly responsible for other care, like caring for elderly parents, spouses, or other ailing relatives and friends. And even though care is often outsourced, someone still needs to manage and coordinate it, and either way it can be draining and emotionally very difficult. Talking to a good friend and colleague at the conference, it really started to dawn on me how much women organize their lives and their work around care. This is also true for the women who opt out. A big part of their narratives, whether or not they have children, is about the people in their lives and the relationships they want to nurture, which the career they opted out of left very little room for. It may seem obvious, that we want to and should be there for the people who are important to us and need us, but this is just not the way work is organized. Very little room is left for care, which is one of the main reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed.

Now I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t care for loved ones, but we can be aware of how unequal the distribution of care in society is and work on that. And we can think about that maybe we need a society and a working culture that accommodates and makes more room for care and relationships, for both men and women. Either way, women have some pretty unrealistic expectations to live up to, and we need to realize this and we really need to not feel so guilty all the time. It is such a waste of energy.

Saying no

I am in a very good place right now. I’m basically writing full-time this spring, which I love. I’m happy to be involved in so many exciting writing projects with talented colleagues. I’m happy to be doing work that feels meaningful. I’m also happy that, at the moment at least, my professional life allows me the leeway and freedom to really be there for my kids and other loved ones when they need me.

Unfortunately despite all this freedom, or maybe because of it, I also feel a little tired because no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to replicate myself and be in many places at the same time. Nor do I have the magical powers of the likes of Hermione Granger to jump back and forth in time in order to maximize my potential (yes, I have been reading Harry Potter recently). This of course is unfortunate because I also seem to have trouble saying no. Or I think I at least need to get better at it.

This is somewhat ironic since I did opt out and I did manage to say no to a lifestyle that wasn’t working for me. But I have also found that although I have thought long and hard about what my terms are, how I want to work, how I want to live, and what I am and am not willing to give up, sometimes sticking to these terms, or even remembering them, can be difficult. And much of the time, I just get so excited by prospective collaboration, projects, and activities, that I sometimes forget what this really entails time wise. Though, to be honest, that does feel like a luxury problem.

But this issue of not being able to say no isn’t only a luxury problem. It’s also a cultural and societal phenomenon. According to Kevin Ashton, author of How to Fly a Horse – The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, we are not taught to say no. Actually we are taught the opposite, to not say no, because no is rude, it is, and I quote, “a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.” However, according to Ashton, the most creative and successful people regularly say no, that’s what gives them time to be creative and successful.

Being taught never to say no is especially true for women and girls. As a girl, I remember being taught how important it is to be pleasant and agreeable. To the point where still today, as an adult and professional, I sometimes feel guilty and worry about disappointing people and letting them down. I go to great lengths to be diplomatic; it has become second nature. I’m sure this is a good trait, but it doesn’t help to be diplomatic in all situations. Especially if you’re trying to assert yourself and get the job done.

According to Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, it gets even more complicated. Growing up, girls are taught not only to be agreeable, they are also taught to provide limitless emotional support to others without expecting anything in return. They are taught to attract boys and pay breathless attention to their needs, and as a result they don’t really have any authority to express their own needs and desires, which in turn places them in a submissive position in society.

Yup, that’s pretty bad. And completely at odds with what is expected when building a career. Not only do women have gender stereotypes, glass ceilings and what-not to overcome, they also have to rewire their brains and unlearn these deep-rooted socially taught behavioral patterns.

Well, I need only to look myself in the mirror, because I can definitely recognize this unhealthy ingrained need to be a ‘good girl’, and I also recognize that this is something that we need to shake because it really isn’t getting us anywhere. So to finish, I will simply say, here’s to saying no! Sometimes at least…

Thinking out of the box (or working two hours per day)

A few days ago, Swedish Professor Bodil Jönsson caused a bit of a stir in Swedish media. In an interview, she stated that, considering our technological developments and how productive we have become during the past decades, we should really be working much shorter days. She even goes as far as to say that two hours per day could be sufficient. Yes, you read correctly, two hours.

Now I think that is fantastic. I don’t know if I agree with the two hours, I still need to think about that, but I greatly admire what Jönsson is doing. She is questioning the status quo; she is thinking out of the box.

The working culture and career models that dominate today haven’t always been standard. They are a result of industrialization, and were developed after the Second World War. In the history of the world, 70 or so years is not a very long time, however, it is long enough that we have difficulties imagining an alternative. Since this is the only working culture we know, it has become a ‘truth’ – and it seems like the only right way of working and living. Imagining other truly different models or ideologies is difficult, and if we can imagine them, they may seem silly, unethical, or simply wrong.

Two-hour workdays may sound crazy, but that is assuming that being busy, efficient, competitive, and constantly striving for greater profits is something to aim for. And this is exactly what Jönsson is questioning. She is calling for a re-examination of the ethical and moral reasons for working the way we do. In our current working culture, we are defined by what we do, and advancing in our careers provides us with power and a sense of worth. Jönsson is asking why we still live according to these ideals, considering what we have achieved. Who really benefits from them?

At the same times she argues that we need to re-evaluate what is considered real and valued work. But this idea of two-hour workdays doesn’t only entail less work. Jönsson argues that we need to think about how we work; we need to find different ways of working. And let’s be honest, eight hours in an office doesn’t necessarily mean eight hours of efficient work. On the contrary, I think at a certain point energy levels just go down the longer we stick around cooped up in the office.

I might still be undecided regarding whether or not two hours is what we should strive for, but I do know that the hectic pace we have today is not doing us any favors. This need to stay lean, flexible, and competitive, combined with the downsizing and constant streamlining we’re seeing in organizations today, is stressful. And negative stress can have dire effects on health. It is simply time to create and adopt more sustainable ways of working. And this doesn’t mean we should achieve less, we just need to achieve it differently, and yes, maybe re-evaluate what’s important.

I admire Jönsson for her creativity and audacity, and her courage to voice opinions that may be outside of people’s comfort zones. More of us should try to come up with ideas that question the status quo and completely contradict what we know as ‘true’. And while you’re doing that, please ignore anyone that says that this is not the way things are done, because only then can we instigate real change.

As some wise person once said, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

The irony of work-life balance

People seem to be very interested in work-life balance. I guess that’s because it is something many of us lack and don’t know how to get. There are numerous studies on the topic, and on the strategies people use in their quest to find it, but still, many have so little of it.

I once saw a TV documentary on how to find happiness. Barbara Ehrenreich (whose books I can recommend, especially Nickel and Dimed) was interviewed as an expert on happiness – or rather the cultural obsession with happiness. What she basically said was that you’re not going to find happiness if that is all you are looking for. She talked about the importance of meaning in what you do and quoted Freud, saying that really it’s about losing yourself in your work, and when you do that then you can feel content and fulfilled, and in other words happy.

This really resonated with me, and I saw parallels to the search for work-life balance. Work-life balance is symptomatic of something else, and as we try to fix the lack of balance in our lives, we’re not actually getting to the root of the problem. The problem is the structures, working cultures, and corporate norms that are prevalent today. They make it hard to have a holistic view of life and career and to combine work with other areas of life.

After I opted out, I no longer so acutely felt a lack of balance in my life even though I was working a lot and at all hours of the day (and night whenever I had deadlines to meet). I could really lose myself in my work, and it automatically solved my lack of work-life balance. And yes, in case you are wondering, I still sometimes feel a lack of balance when I have too much to do or I am feeling stressed, because opting out does not obliterate all stress. But when I do feel a lack of balance, I know it is only temporary and not a chronic problem.

This is also closely related to time management.

Every once in a while I’m asked if I can recommend a good book on time management. I know nothing about time management, nor do I know of any good books on the subject. I have a vague recollection of being offered to take a course in time management a long time ago in my previous career. Needless to say I didn’t take the course. I remember having the feeling that no matter how many time management courses my colleagues took, or how many books they read on the subject, they still didn’t have enough time.

However, I do know enough about time to know that time management, like work-life balance, doesn’t actually get to the root of the problem. The experience of not having enough time doesn’t really correlate with there not being enough time, nor of not being structured enough in one’s use of one’s time. It’s a symptom of something else.

People feel they don’t have enough time when they don’t feel they have control over their time, and in today’s hectic working culture this is often the case. People don’t feel like they have control. In my research I have seen that the feeling of not having enough time becomes less of a problem when one can create a lifestyle where one can decide over one’s time and how one uses it. After opting out, people often create lifestyles and ways of working where they have more control over their lives and the use of their time (for example when they work and when they spend time with their children or doing other things, not necessarily how much time they spend doing all this). This feeling of control is, in turn, closely related to a sense of coherence, which then leads to a feeling of happiness and contentment.

So no, I have no books on time management, but I do have a good book on time that I can recommend:

Unwinding the Clock: Ten Thoughts on Our Relationship to Time (original title: Tio tankar om tid) by Bodil Jönsson

Opt Out or Lean In?

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!