Sunday, 14 April 2013

Leaning In or Hanging On?

There has been a lot of comment in recent months by senior women on how they balance a high pressure, big-responsibility role with the rest of their life.  It is a common, often internal debate, which professional women experience whether they are already working or thinking about returning.  Julianne posted about this previously and I’d like to add my own perspective.
Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, exhorting women to Lean In to their careers, has currently reignited this debate following Anne-Marie Slaughter’s contribution last summer (see links below).  Both Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her counterpart at Yahoo, Melissa Mayer, profess to be able to have both a high profile career as well as a satisfying personal life. Sandberg’s book sets out what women need to do to follow her path.  She believes that women need to have more confidence to put themselves forward and push ahead with their careers.  She is also refreshingly candid about her own experiences and times of self-doubt.  Her response to her self-doubt seems to be to push herself even harder and achieve even more.  In the opposing camp are Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and former first female Director of Policy Planning for Obama, who found that a high profile career did not suit the rest of the life they wished to lead.  It is of note that all these examples come from the USA, where perhaps there are more women in senior roles than here in the UK.

In any event, how is this debate relevant to women wishing to return after a career break who have nothing, as yet, to lean in to?  Returners can often believe that it will not be possible to combine their career with their other interests.   In my view, the question underlying the debate is how we define our success.  For women like Sandberg and Meyer, their sense of success is defined precisely as combining being a leader of a major international business and an influencer in their industry with being a wife and mother.  Callan and Slaughter, on the other hand, discovered that no amount of power, income and position compensated for the lack of balance they experienced in their lives.
For women thinking about returning to work, it is essential to be clear about how you will define your success.  Will it be getting back, as quickly as possible, to the senior level you previously occupied?  Will it be creating a portfolio of diverse activities?  Will it be working for certain defined periods of time?  Will it be turning a hobby or passion into a business?   The options are limitless while the choice of how to define your success is totally up to you: it is not for your peers, your social circle or your family to define success for you.  Getting the right the balance – for you - between work and the rest of your life is likely to be more important than your title or status.  Gaining a sense of control over your future career is a key factor in how satisfying you will find it.
For further reading:
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Erin Callan
Posted by Katerina

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