Work-Life Balance

Lean in or recline? Law prof's essay sparks response

Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks takes a stand for work-life balance in an essay that suggests too much leaning in can lead women to burn out and drop out of the workplace.

Brooks uses Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In to make her point. Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, is probably a fine person, Brooks says, but her “lean in” approach requires too much of a time commitment.

“Ladies,” Brooks writes at (reg. req.), “if we want to rule the world —or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions—we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us. We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.

“Here’s the thing: We’ve managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.

“But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.

“Why? Because unlike most men, women—particularly women with children—are still expected to work that ‘second shift’ at home. … It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them.” Both men and women, she argues, suffer when workplace policies promote long hours and too much work.

An article in the New Republic criticizes Brooks for framing her story as opposing the ideas of another woman, “one who happens to be fighting the exact same battles, and pointing to the exact same injustices, as Rosa Brooks.” The New Republic author agrees that women are “on a 24-hour-day hamster wheel of overextension and undernourishment,” and says Sandberg has herself acknowledged those problems.

The Washington Post notes the articles and credits Sandberg with reopening debate about the lack of women in leadership positions. Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, tells the Post that “this conversation had gotten old and stale.” Williams said she has been discussing the issues for 15 to 20 years, “and people just weren’t covering it.” After Sandberg’s book was published, “all of a sudden everyone was talking about it,” Williams says.

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