To ‘Lean In’ or Not to ‘Lean In:’ Is That the Real Question?

5/7/13

Steve Jobs famously said that you cannot “connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

For me, one of those moments of clarity in connecting the dots—looking back and seeing a logic and pattern in my life and career—came with reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. The Facebook COO encourages women to “lean in” to take a seat at the head table in their careers. And while there is much I agree with in her book, I want to distinguish my views on two disparate concepts. First, do I believe women should lean in more? Heck yes! I believe everyone should lean in more to participate and have a say. Leaning back is no way to make a difference—or to feel good about yourself. Do I think women can have it all by leaning in more? Well, that’s a different story. And my feelings regarding this point are far more aligned with Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. She poignantly described a very familiar dilemma last year in The Atlantic.

“It’s time to stop fooling ourselves,” writes Anne-Marie, who left her position as the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department to return to her faculty position at Princeton University, and to be closer to her family. She argues that, “The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” And to be honest, I believe this is by and large true—and a primary reason for the firestorm Sheryl Sandberg’s book has ignited.

As Anne-Marie reminds us, millions of working women face very difficult situations, working long hours in jobs on someone else’s schedule. Far from having it all, they are simply trying to hang on to what they have. Will these people succeed by leaning in? They certainly might end up faring better (perhaps much better!), as there are many definitions of success—from leading a project at work or starting a small business, to representing our children at a PTA meeting. However, Anne-Marie rightly points out that even leaning in heavily might not be sufficient for many women, considering the way America’s economy and society are currently (and not so ideally) structured for balancing work and family for women.

What’s important to me is that a woman who chooses to lean into her professional career has the opportunity to do so. That’s the equality we all strive for. That seat at the table, however, will not come free, and the sacrifices for women will be typically much greater than those of men for the foreseeable future. It’s clear to me that a balanced life still is much more elusive for women than it is for men. So I say, women first need to consider the costs and benefits of leaning in to build that career, and then they should examine the personal and professional costs of not doing so. Each of us should have the opportunity to make our personal choices, while respecting other women for the clearly tough decisions they often have to make.

Let me briefly share my personal journey. When I was 18, I moved to the United States from my home country of Turkey to study engineering and business at Cornell University on a merit scholarship. After graduation, I leaned in and did very well professionally. I chose to have my kids later than many of my friends, enabling me to establish myself in my career first. I moved into a C-level position in a public company in my thirties, but then I decided to lean back a bit and opted for the consulting life. Why? I wanted to spend more time with my young family. And, no—this is not a euphemism for being unable to get a job. I was being asked to consider numerous C-level opportunities during those years. I simply wanted to work less and be with my kids more.

I won’t pretend my situation is typical. I was fortunate enough to have a consulting career for five years and still be able to return to the C-suite last year when I chose to join San Diego-based Anametrix. I also won’t pretend I am not making sacrifices now as a startup CEO; long work hours and arduous travel schedules are taking a major toll on my life. Since I do my utmost to spend time with my kids and my husband, the result is practically no “me” time. Nope, there is no free lunch. But those of us who are fortunate can at least have the opportunity to make the choices that are best suited to our individual situations at any given time. And by being trailblazers and pushing to change the conditions for working women, we can perhaps, improve the opportunities for more women to get the benefits of leaning in when they opt to.

I hope watching me juggle the life of businesswoman, mother, and wife provides a good role model for my two young kids. When I receive an award or publish an article, it’s a joy to hear my kids say, “Mommy, I know you are proud of what I do. I just want you to know that I am very proud of you, too.” That’s a priceless experience, one that is worth the short nights of sleep and lack of personal time.

I’d like to close with a key point Sheryl makes: marrying the right person really does make a difference. A partner who doesn’t just help with the family duties but accepts them as a joint responsibility is an absolute must to maintain sanity (and marital bliss). I would also like to add how important it is to have extended family close by. Thank you, Scott, and thank you, Mom! You make it possible for me lean in as much as I choose. Last but not least, a hat tip to the generations of women who fought so hard to change social policies and achieve equal rights. It is due to your efforts and sacrifices that we even get to discuss the merits of whether or not to lean in—and continue your work to create a better society for all of us.

Pelin Thorogood is the CEO of Anametrix, a San Diego-based provider of cloud-based, real-time marketing analytics for Global 2000 B2C brands, publishers, and digital agencies. Thorogood is a 15-year executive and thought leader in marketing and analytics, and also serves as Executive-in-Residence at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Follow @

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  • RC

    Great editorial. I’d like to see more like this.

    As a man, I have it easier hands-down at the workplace and in the wider world, but as a partner who wants to be an equal in running the home and taking care of our child, it’s difficult to balance everything out. I’m having to make the lean in / lean out choice right now myself in regards to my career and family, just as you did. I think there’s just no easy answer to work/life balance. You cannot have it all, man or woman, and that’s a societal problem that we all need to work together to fix.

    • http://twitter.com/PelinT Pelin Thorogood

      Thanks so much for your note – I am glad to see more men are choosing the equal partnership route. There is certainly no easy answer, but as we all better understand repercussions to family, productivity, identity and self worth, I am hopeful society will continue to evolve to support a dynamic work/life balance. Best of luck to you! ;-)