What would it mean for women who navigate both careers and family life to move beyond the currently fashionable notion of leaning in and instead reimagine the workplace with a model of leaning on?
Today, women have made significant strides in the North American workforce. The male breadwinner/female homemaker model of family life continues to wane.
While fewer than half of all women with children under the age of 18 were in the paid U.S. workforce in the mid-1970s, more than 70% are employed outside the home today. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 60% of women with children under the age of 6 are now in the workforce. Women now pursue careers in previously male-dominated occupations. They outpace men in the pursuit of professional and graduate degrees
So, why are women still less satisfied with their combined career and family lives than men?
Despite the progress made over the past five decades, the jury is still out regarding whether or not women really can have it all.
At the turn of the last century, a flurry of articles sent a wave of backlash to highly-educated women who were pursuing both professional careers and motherhood.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett told readers of Harvard Business Review that “having it all” was a “myth” based on her discovery that one-third of successful, middle-aged career women were childless --and most regretted it.
While Hewlett’s article may have jolted the feminist community, it was undeniable that many successful women viewed career and family as trade-offs.
Lisa Belkin argued that women who wanted families were “opting out” of high-powered careers, and Claudia Wallis made “The Case for Staying Home” on the cover of Time Magazine. The image of a preschool-aged child clinging to his mother’s pantsuit-clad thigh sent a clear message: women could fulfill their career ambitions or they could be devoted mothers – but not both.
Even as Wallis and others suggested that women opt out of demanding jobs, working mothers and would-be mothers persisted in their determination that professional and family life could coexist, particularly with some adjustments in the workplace. Organizations that didn’t want to lose out on this talent pool recognized the need for change.
Progressive employers began to offer flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting and flextime, that enabled many working mothers to continue working full-time.
In the meantime, what had happened to women who had left the workplace to stay home with children? Did they miss their professional life? Did they have regrets over abandoning theirhigh-powered careers? A study by Judith Warner indicated that the answers were more subtle: women missed having a professional identity. What these women really wanted was quality time with their children (and spouses!) combined with well-paid part-time or flexible work that provided achievement and advancement.
In my own scholarly research, I have studied how women see themselves in the context of their combined career and family lives, and how this changes over time. For the women who characterize their younger selves as determined to become financially independent professionals, work continues to be self-defining--even after they become mothers.
While some continue to work full-time and others reduce their hours, the ones who describe feeling content both at work and at home work in flexible organizations where they can put their education and experience to good use without sacrificing their families. In other words, they have found what the women Judith Warner spoke to are looking for.
Still, when this or that pundit says that women can’t have it all, they have a point. If “having it all” means working 50-60 plus hours per week, traveling extensively for work, and being physically and emotionally present for homework, dinner, activities and quality down time, we have set ourselves up for burnout and failure.
Sheryl Sandberg might be telling women to “lean in,” but what about having something or someone to “lean on?” Women need a solid support system, including a helpful spouse/partner, access to quality childcare, and flexible organizations, if they are to achieve their career aspirations and feel content in the lives they have crafted.
Most importantly, we must acknowledge that balancing work and family is not so simply a women’s issue. Rather, it is an issue that concerns men, women, and organizations alike.
Men also feel the pressure to be superdads who are expected to be good providers, to help around the house, and to play an equal role in parenting. However, there are even fewer support systems in place for men, and even when they do exist, gendered norms discourage men from taking advantage of them.
So where do we go from here? Perhaps the answer lies in reframing work and family as essential aspects of people’s lives, rather than opposing domains for women alone. In so doing, we may begin working towards a common goal. After all, professional men and women essentially want the same thing – to be fulfilled in their careers and engaged with their families. If organizations want to recruit and retain top talent, and both partners in today’s couples want careers and families, we had best begin to work together to create inclusive support systems at work and at home. It is time we not only lean in, but demand more to lean on.
 Marilyn J. Davidson, and Ronald J. Burke, Women in Management Worldwide: Progress and Prospects An Overview. Surrey, England: Gower Publishing Limited, 2011, and Ellen Galinsky, Kerstin Aumann and James T. Bond, 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce: “Times Are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and At Home,” New York: Work and Families Institute, 2011.
 Sylvia Ann Hewlett, “Executive Women and the Myth of Having It All,” Harvard Business Review (April 2002): 66-73.
 Lisa Belkin, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” The New York Times, October 26, 2003, and Claudia Wallis, “The Case for Staying Home,” Time, March 22, 2004: 50-59.
 Judith Warner, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” New York Times Magazine, August 7, 2013.
 Sheryl Sandberg, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2013.