Your Marriage Will Fail

The Hidden Realities of Leaning In

by Alicia Liu on February 24th, 2014

“If you want to get to my level, you will be working all the time,” she said, “this will put strain on your marriage, and your husband will leave you.”

I was a lowly engineering intern at the time, she was the director of my department. She was driving me home from a networking event held for us, the women employees of a large tech company. The event was ostensibly to address gender diversity issues, but the subtext was about keeping women at the company. Like other tech companies, the attrition rate of women is high, especially further up the ranks. Presumably, the event organizers saw this as a good opportunity for new hires like me to receive the wisdom of women who had “made it.” They probably didn’t foresee the off-script candor.

When I was small, I had drawn a picture titled Super Mom. She was octopus-like, with a dozen arms and hands doing various tasks, from cleaning the floor to answering the phone. Even as a child, I had absorbed that a “successful” woman is one that can do it all. Similar to how unrealistic ideals espoused by fashion magazines impact girls’ self-esteem, the superwoman ideal of a perfect career and family, as embodied by Sheryl Sandberg, is also harmful. Both ideals imprint upon girls and women that anything less than perfection is falling short. We are not enough. We need to work harder and do more.

The Author's re-creation of her childhood 'Super Mom' drawing, described above.

The Author’s re-creation of her childhood ‘Super Mom’ drawing.

But I was young and paid no heed then. I believed I could do whatever the boys could do, and I was totally bought into the idea of working my ass off to prove it. Everything else didn’t matter — at least not as much. When I co-founded my first startup at 22, my idea of success was for my company to be successful. I was willing to be single for years, if that’s what it took. Luckily for me, I met my future husband soon after, but that didn’t stop me from prioritizing my work above my relationships, and myself. Work hard and become successful was the modus operandi reinforced by the advisors, investors, and everyone we looked up to.

After four years, I burned out. I was sleeping poorly, my mind still worrying about work when my head hit the pillow and again when I woke up. I had sacrificed time with friends and family. I had forsaken my many interests, including writing, art, regular exercise and coding for fun. I had always prided myself on being a well-rounded, multi-faceted person, someone who shirked studying for engineering exams to work on an 18th-century European art project. Yet I had molded myself into a one-dimensional worker bot in the single-minded pursuit of work success.

What did success even mean? Money had never been my primary motivation. The “work hard and be successful” mantra started to sound hollow. Suddenly I didn’t know what I was killing myself for. The promise of success wasn’t my own. I had never stopped to think about what personal success or meaningful work meant to me.

While leaning in, I had failed to read the warning label about its side effects.

Lean In, Relationships and the Marriage Industrial Complex

Recently, a college friend reminisced with me about those she-warrior attitudes we so easily adopted nearly a decade ago. We mocked how ready our younger selves were to be the career-women who took pride in having no time for relationships. Looking back, we now see ourselves as naive to think that career success could solve all our wants.

Our society tells women left and right, as exemplified by the hundred-billion dollar wedding industry, that their biggest achievement in life is still netting a man. Not just any man, but a suitable man, a man with greater career prospects than her. It’s no coincidence that Carrie Bradshaw ends up with Mr. Big, a man of untold wealth who buys a Manhattan apartment with a room-sized closet for her. A man to buy you things is still the gold standard. This societal expectation devalues women, their identities, achievements and relationships.

The mainstream ideals of femininity, masculinity, wealth and relationships cause conflict in our personal lives when we, nearly inevitably, fall short. On the cusp of turning thirty, with the personal, societal and biological pressures to start a family, many successful “lean-in” women I know are struggling to find the family piece of the superwoman puzzle. Sandberg’s advice, to find a husband who’ll do the laundry so you can lean in, is complicated in practice.

Scan of a Wonder Woman card, showing Wonder Woman running forward, one arm raised holding a golden, electrified rope.

Creative Commons photo by andertoons-cartoons

A friend recently broke up with a long-term boyfriend who felt slighted she got a raise and started making more money than him. He lamented to her that while he appreciates her intellect and ambition (plus the comforts provided by a dual income), he sometimes wished for a girlfriend who looked up to him and will care for him—unspoken but understood as a girlfriend who will support his career and be a happy stay-at-home wife some day. He wasn’t looking for an equal partnership, but a caretaker at home.

A college boyfriend who broke up with me after two weeks once tried to explain to me how this works. He told me he was in the top 1% of eligible men — already flush with family money and on the path to a lucrative career — and thus he gets his pick of the 99% of women below him on this pyramid (never mind whether any of the women would want to date this pompous jerk, but I digress). He then pointed out that I, being a woman, could only date up the pyramid, and so I only had a couple of percentages to work within.

Even my dad once relayed to me a theory he read on the Internet: An ‘A’ man will marry a ‘B’ woman, a ‘B’ man will marry a ‘C’ woman, and a ‘C’ man will marry a ‘D’ woman, so naturally the ‘A’ women end up with ‘D’ men—or alone. I was shocked that my father was basically implying my boyfriend at the time was a ‘D’, just because he didn’t seem outwardly ambitious. That he was endlessly patient, caring, and supportive didn’t seem to matter as much. I was angry at the time, but now I see it as an accurate reflection of our societal values. Only income-generating, career-advancing work by men deserves to be ranked, while other types of work—to care for family, contribute to a community, volunteer, nonprofit, and “starving artist” professions—are all seen as lesser, and to be taken for granted. My dad eventually came around, and now I’m lucky to be married to that man who does more than his share at home. But my dad still asks me if I’m cooking enough, and whether I’m bossing him around.

The Contradictions of Lean In

Lean In upholds the superwoman image but doesn’t address the sexist systems that work against “superwomen” succeeding. At a former workplace, I was reprimanded and told I “need to be nicer.” I’ve yet to see this type of criticism leveled at a man. Whether what I said was right or not wasn’t discussed. Though I was doing exemplary work, my tone made me wrong.

Another friend was told by her manager, who was trying to keep her from advancing to a different team, that people from that team thought she was being too “aggressive” with her career. She works at a prominent large tech company, which is currently hosting panels to discuss increasing diversity and retention of women. While senior executives point to their panels about how much they’re doing to advance women, my friend is being asked by her immediate manager whether she really wants the more demanding position… after all, shouldn’t she be thinking about starting a family soon?

Nearly every woman in tech I’ve spoken to has a binderful of stories of sexist, biased and double-standard behavior, including outright sexual harassment. It’s rarely mentioned, much less reported to HR, because women know if they make waves it will hurt their career. Companies will not hire or retain women that have a history of causing “trouble.” So women learn to grin and bear it, while they walk the tight-rope between leaning in and being “too aggressive,” trying not to fall off.

As a society, we’re still stuck in gender stereotypes that undermine women both at home and work. Both highly accomplished straight women giving up their careers to raise children and their husbands giving up their families for work are seen as worthy martyrs. Meanwhile, stay-at-home dads, their “power-hungry” wives and other types of “abnormal” relationships are tropes for sitcoms.

As long as families are seen as secondary supporting acts to work and career, women are faced with an impossible choice. If we play ball and lean in, then we are judged as being selfish and aggressive, for “marrying down,” or for being bad, uncaring wives whose husbands will leave us. If we stay single, don’t have children, or have relationships that don’t align with the happy endings of rom-coms, we are judged for being cold, overly ambitious, and “un-womanly.” Alternatively, if we dedicate ourselves to our family, then we’re judged for not leaning in enough.

Similar to how work success is narrowly defined in monetary terms, family success is defined as having an outwardly happy traditional family, with the possibility of finding happiness being single, without kids, single with kids, or in various other types of family arrangements, left completely out of the equation. We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t. Leaning in further certainly does not give more choices to women who are already sideways from all that leaning.

Another scan from the Wonder Woman card series; showing her in an action pose, hair flying out as she turns to face the viewer.

Creative Commons photo by andertoons-cartoons

Moving Away from Lean In

What’s needed is a redefinition of the collective value we place on things besides work. We need to stop worshipping the cult of busy. Being so busy that you have no time for anything other than work should not be worn as a badge of honor. Spending time with family should not be seen as an obligation to be slotted into the narrowing slivers between blocks of work, just another part of your superwoman image to be maintained. We need to find love and meaning in our most important relationships, and recognize that what we do for our families, communities, and to enrich ourselves and our spirit, is not ‘lesser’ than working for corporations. And we need to find other frameworks beyond Lean In to model success, and our relationships and lives, upon.

No one on their deathbed wished they had spent more time at work. As a nurse in palliative care recalled, all of the men she cared for “deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.” As women, let’s not lean in to those same restricted definitions of success that held these men captive. There are many paths to build a life that is meaningful and fulfilling.