In her book, Sandberg wrote about the struggles she’d had as a professional woman in male-dominated industries. She also wrote of times she observed women backing out of the running for demanding, high-power jobs because they were already anticipating the toll their careers would take on their future families.
In practice, her prescription — leaning in — meant sitting at the table in meetings, keeping your foot on your career’s accelerator, getting to work early, staying late and, above all, having a partner or spouse who can support you at home. This last bit in particular drove a lot of criticism for being overly reliant on a type of feminism available only to wealthy, coupled, white women who can afford child care — or who have a spouse who can take care of children.
In 2015, though, Sandberg’s supportive husband died suddenly, and she found herself in the position of being a single mother — albeit an extremely wealthy and powerful one. On Mother’s Day, Sandberg acknowledged in a post on Facebook the shortcomings of her book’s message, particularly to single mothers.
“Before, I did not quite get it,” she wrote. “I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”
She hinted at that again in her commencement speech this past weekend.
"The loss of a partner often has severe negative financial consequences, especially for women,” she said. “So many single mothers — and fathers — struggle to make ends meet or have jobs that don’t allow them the time they need to care for their children. I had financial security, the ability to take the time off I needed, and a job that I did not just believe in, but where it’s actually okay to spend all day on Facebook. Gradually, my children started sleeping through the night, crying less, playing more."
Whether you agreed with Sandberg’s original message or thought it was an oversimplification, there’s no doubt it stirred a broader conversation about how women seek to balance the demands of a career and a home life. "Lean In" itself has evolved into an organization dedicated to educating women, spouses and workplaces by creating content, conducting studies and creating "Lean In Circles" where women can find mentorship and community.
“I don't want to revel in Sheryl Sandberg's admission as much as some people are sort of celebrating her admission of some inadequacies in ‘Lean In,’ because frankly, the book was such an impetus for this conversation,” said Emilie Aries, founder and chief executive of Bossed Up, a training company that hosts boot camps and retreats for women who are hoping to better integrate their personal and professional lives.
Aries says her work is a reaction to the “Lean In" message, which she says places undue emphasis on women’s professional development over personal wellness, including a stable home life. If the focus on professional goals is excessive, she says, it risks bringing "shame and silence to whatever people have going on personally."
These questions reflect a long evolution of expectations for men's and women's roles. The notion of a separate work and personal life comes from the “ideal worker model” of the early 20th century, when it was possible for large portions of the middle- and working- class population to survive on a single income, usually a man’s. The model presumes “that a good worker is someone that is there full time, in an uninterrupted way, over the course of their careers, and that they will put work first," said Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University.
The other side of the ideal worker model is the "ideal parent model," which presumes that there will be other family members — wives and mothers, presumably — who will stay home to care for children and do household work like cooking and cleaning.
To be sure, Sandberg has prompted a wider conversation about women's roles in the workplace.
“One might have predicted that as women began to join the workplace, it became not just important, but essential, for women as well as men to have some kind of a thriving work life, and that we would then start to redefine the ideal worker model,” Gerson said. “The irony is, instead of doing that, the opposite has occurred.”
The expectations to be 100 percent present in both work and personal lives is stronger today than it ever was before, Gerson says. And rather than restructure organizations and institutions to fit a more blended work-life economy, expectations for both have dug deeper, often forcing working women to take on the burden of the “second shift” of housework and child care after their day jobs.
“This individualistic ethic that still reigns at work, the notion that ‘leaning in’ will get you there, also pertains at home,” Gerson said, “where we feel that we need to lean in as a parent and you can't rely on other people to help with that job as well.”
For some women, the expectations can feel overwhelming.
Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek, a freelance user-design researcher in Pittsburgh who has a PhD in computer science, had set clear expectations for herself when she got pregnant: She would continue working at full capacity until she gave birth. Then she would take her 12-week maternity leave. And then she would return, again at full capacity.
This is not what happened.
“Nothing prepares you for having a kid and what it's going to be like when you come back,” she said, “I think I had set up all these expectations of work, and it did not work out that way.”
Because she pushed herself so hard before and during the pregnancy, Dickey-Kurdziolek said she had a much harder time recovering from her pregnancy than she would have if she had taken it easier.
She returned from maternity leave to find that the start-up she was working for laid off half of its staff, allowing her to remain in a part-time capacity until she could find a new job. The work she was given was menial, “almost like what you'd give an intern, or somebody who's just starting on the job, to, like, ramp them up,” she said.
On top of that, Dickey-Kurdziolek said she was struggling emotionally and physically to get back to where she had been before she’d had her son. For Dickey-Kurdziolek, “leaning in” both at work and at home sounded doable, but she quickly realized how difficult it was to maintain that stability when home and work situations suddenly became very unstable.
“I'd set up these really high expectations for myself and what I could accomplish post-baby, and those expectations were completely dashed,” she said. “If I had taken a little bit more time to reflect and taken the advice of other people who said I should give myself a break, then I might have had a different experience."
" 'Lean In' might be a good philosophy for getting you good things in your career," she added, "but it might not be the best strategy for getting good things in your life.”