By: Nguhi Mwaura*
The conversation around Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” (2013), has drawn much comment, but bear with me as I add my own to the pile. This conversation has hit a nerve precisely because it asks the million dollar question, can women have it all? Is it possible for women to reach the highest levels of professional success while also having stable and thriving personal and family lives?
I have been very lucky because I have never doubted whether it is possible to “Have It All”. I was blessed enough to have an incredible mother who juggled her life and managed everything and everyone in it with an effortless grace. She built a business from the ground up, raised two children single handedly (made it for every parents consultation, sports day and recital) and still had time to inject her life with much laughter and joy. She was black, female and had the reckless fearlessness that comes with knowing that failure is not in the cards. This was a time when women entrepreneurs were virtually unheard of. It never occurred to me growing up that she was in any way special or an anomaly; but after interacting with a lot of my peers, I realised what a privilege it was to have a mother who was not only a professional but one who dictated her own terms from very early on. She decided that she wanted to be a mother first and a professional second and took the steps to make that happen; this included quitting a job that didn’t allow her the flexibility she needed to be the person she wanted to be. The lesson I’ve taken away from this is that you have to define what leaning in or having it all looks like for yourself. To me, leaning in means being fully engaged in whatever it is that you are doing at whatever stage you are at.
The notion of “Having it all” for women is often so narrowly defined as having a family and a career but that isn’t what it necessarily has to be. Realising what matters to you as an individual is at the heart of leaning in. Babies may not be something that you want for yourself, just as legitimately a high intensity career may not be what you want either. Deliberate concerted choices are to me where the journey of leaning in begins.
One of my favorite lines in the movie the Devil wears Prada is “let me know when your entire life goes up in smoke then it’s time for a promotion”. This all elusive search for work-life balance leads me to the second lesson I’ve learned which is: leaning in comes at a cost. In a critique of Sandberg’s book, James Allworth, at the Harvard Business Review, writes: “the advice that Sandberg dispenses comes with serious costs. Those costs have been traditionally borne by men”. The laws of the universe dictate that prioritising one area over another comes at a cost either personally or professionally. Sheryl Sandberg describes how she prepared for the day her child would cry for someone other than herself to come and comfort him. She prepared for it because she counted the cost and ultimately decided that her child’s well-being would not be severely compromised if she was not the primary care giver. I don’t imagine that the choice is an easy one, but she knew what she needed in order to be fulfilled and she chose her career first. I believe that children, especially daughters, seeing a generation of fulfilled happy mothers ultimately creates a chain reaction of girls who know that there is not only one way to be a woman or a mother — well at least it did for me.
In all of this, I want to acknowledge that we have inherited institutions that continue to uphold patriarchy and racism and we have to make a choice between playing the game and changing the system. I must admit, I do not know what the way forward is, but I think that the only way the battle will be won is that each of us in our way takes up the “battle cry”. Whether that means climbing the corporate ladder or raising sons who recognise the value that women bring to the table and daughters who will never doubt that value, there’s a role for each of us to play. Aluta continua, we fight and struggle because our contributions make clearer the path for those coming behind us.
So, in closing, I’ll borrow a phrase from Oprah’s “what I know for sure” dictum, what I know for sure is this: there is no cookie cutter way to lean in, but when we make the concerted deliberate decision to do so, there’s a ripple effect, one which we often don’t even understand. When my mum started her career, I doubt she thought about what it would mean for her daughter to watch her courageously step out into the unknown, to lean in, but for me, it meant all the difference in the world.
*Nguhi Mwaura is an Analyst at Dalberg Global Development Advisors in Nairobi, Kenya.
*Picture: Nguhi and her mother.