Lean In or Lean Out: Unpacking the Great Debate on How Women Should Authentically Behave

Michelle Obama Lean In Be Authentic
Photo Credit Youtube screenshot from Today.com

Being a woman in today’s complicated world is a daunting task. Being a working woman, juggling the responsibilities of motherhood, marriage, and a career is an even more difficult job — but is it impossible? It depends who you ask.

Despite the fact that former first lady Michelle Obama made it look pretty effortless and flawless to juggle all of her roles in the public eye and personal realm, it is not easy, she claims. And having it all is an unrealistic goal, especially if your game plan is to “lean in.” Why? Because “that sh*t doesn’t work all the time,” according to a recent speech on Obama’s book tour. Yes, she said sh*t. Cue gasps from the crowd and slow claps from working women everywhere.

Let’s back up a bit…..

It’s no secret that there is a huge gap between men and women in the workforce in terms of pay, treatment, title, and expectations. And women all around the world, at all levels of professional success, all ages and a wide range of personal situations, agree that this has to change. But where women may differ is in how they think one should accomplish that shift in equality, and what it will take to get there. Should we lean in or lean out? While women may agree on the ultimate result and the way we want it to be, the great debate lies in how we actually realize this goal. Or if it’s even possible to succeed in all aspects of a woman’s being. Michelle Obama, it seems, isn’t so sure.

Michelle Obama Gets Real About the Female Struggle

On December 1st Michelle Obama took the stage at The Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY to a packed house. It was a stop on her much anticipated book tour promoting her new memoir Becoming, and in many ways it did not disappoint. During her talk Obama fessed up to not only struggling to balance her career and her family, but also admitting that she doesn’t believe that it’s truly possible to do it all, and to have it all…at least not at the same time.

She talked openly about the hardships of marriage, of finding balance and of putting in work. With eight years of watching her words behind her, Michelle Obama seemed more free and authentic, hence the curse word she accidentally dropped before realizing where she was and rephrasing with a more appropriate verbiage. But it was hard to ignore what she had to say. Having it all is a somewhat of a myth. Marriage is not equal, it takes a lot of work, and even with the work, it might not be possible to have a happy marriage and a successful career. “I tell women that whole ‘you can have it all’ — mmm, nope. Not at the same time — that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in, because that sh*t doesn’t work, she said.”

The Movement to Lean In Began in 2013

Back in 2013 Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg famously penned Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. At the time it was a groundbreaking conversation starter, with a very successful female executive — Sandberg was COO of Facebook beginning in 2008 — openly discussing the way that women need to take control of their future success and lean in to demand what they want or deserve. The book shared insights, personal stories and advice to help women achieve their goals, all with an underlying mission of creating more equality in the workforce and the world.  

In her best-selling book, Sandberg is igniting a conversation as much as she is offering tips to help women get where they want to go. But one of the key takeaways is that the responsibility to make a change, and the onus to grow and succeed falls solely on the woman striving to propel her life forward. She asks women to really show up at work, to sit at the table with men, to tackle challenges head on, to not mentally check out when they start a family and to take risks as they ask for what they deserve. If you do all of these things, it is possible to achieve your full potential and to have all of the success you want both at work and in the home. It is an empowering message and call to action. But does it work?

If you ask Obama, no, not really. Or at least, not always and not for everyone.

Michelle Obama Challenges the Notion of Leaning In

It’s not Sandberg’s mission that Obama, and other women, have an issue with. But it is her “lean in” approach that seems to fail for so many people. And perhaps because Obama is one of the most influential black women in America, her message really resonated with a lot of people. You’ve seen the headlines, you’ve read the tweets, and you’re probably reading her book. After all, Becoming sold over 3 million copies in its first month alone. It became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction titles ever; it is one of the best-selling political memoirs to date and it was the best-selling book of 2018, despite being released just seven weeks shy of 2019.  


So why does Obama think that having it all is a pipe dream? Does she want us to lean out? Not exactly, but she does want to make it very clear that for many women in various situations, leaning in won’t work. And if you are holding yourself to an unrealistic goal of having everything you ever wanted, and you aren’t able to achieve that perfectly happy and successful existence on a personal and professional level, it’s okay. You’re not alone, and you’re not a failure. You’re human and you’re trying.

Obama talks about her time in marriage counseling with husband, former president Barack Obama, and how being married is really hard. She talks about her struggles to conceive her daughters and how having children disrupts your life. She talks about how an unequal relationship can lead to resentment. And considering the person speaking — a former first lady who was able to successfully balance being strong and vulnerable, independent and supportive, traditional and modern — it has left quite an impression.

Leaning In Can Work, But We Have a Long Way to Go

Remember, this is just one woman’s opinion on the “Lean In” mantra from another successful female. Obama isn’t claiming it never works, or that there aren’t specific points and tactics that might work for some. She’s just arguing that sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes the notion of having it all at the same time is a myth. So, does it ever work? Sometimes, yes. But the statistics aren’t exactly where they should be, and according to Sandberg herself, we still have a long way to go.

In a 2017 interview with USA Today Sandberg explained that we’re no better off than we were when “Lean In” was published. “In terms of women in leadership roles, we are not better off. We are stuck at less than 6% of the Fortune 500 CEO jobs and their equivalent in almost every country in the world. There were 19 countries run by women when Lean In was published. Today there are 11,” she explains.

And more recently, the Women in the Workplace 2018 report further supports those findings. In this report, published five years after her first book, we see that “corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation” and that more specifically, “women of color are the most underrepresented group of all—behind white men, men of color, and white women.” And it’s not because of attrition; women and men are leaving their jobs at the same rate. It’s because women are being left out of the workforce from the get-go, and aren’t being hired for entry level jobs as much as men who are equally or less qualified.  

What’s Next For Women in The Great Lean In or Lean Out Debate?

It’s clear that women across the globe are not where they want to be, or where they deserve to be in terms of professional success and familial satisfaction. Whether you support the “Lean In” movement or you’re empowered and comforted by the acknowledgement that having it all is a myth, the truth remains: women deserve more. So, what now?

According to Sandberg, the responsibility of achieving equality and success should not fall solely on the women seeking recognition. Women are doing their part — they’re leaning in. Corporations, romantic partners, and society are not doing their part, and that’s a huge part of the problem. Husbands are not supporting their female partners who want to share both home and workplace responsibilities. Companies are not creating safe work environments to encourage women to succeed and make them feel supported and equal. While it may seem as if leaning in hasn’t worked in all of the ways it promised to, that doesn’t mean it can’t and it won’t, and Sandberg thinks the shift will come soon.

Obama has her own take on leaning in. While it doesn’t work for everyone, you absolutely must always advocate for yourself and find people who believe in you. When Obama’s guidance counselor told her she wasn’t “Princeton material” she found support from someone else, and argues that you need to know your worth and seek out people who believe in your success.

You don’t need to do it all and if you can’t have it all at the same exact time, that’s okay. But you do need to advocate for yourself, you need to be willing to put in the work, and you need to acknowledge that what works for some does not work for all. Work life balance is a struggle, regardless of your position in the world or how you are perceived in the public eye. Obama arguably managed to do it all with ease and grace. But as we are learning now, it wasn’t easy, and she didn’t always have it all.

There’s clearly lots to learn from both of these ladies, but the main takeaway here isn’t that you should stop fighting and working for what you want in all aspects of your life, but rather that if you struggle to balance it all, and the expectation of having it all weighs you down, you’re not alone.