There is much talk in the media about how women’s careers are limited by inflexible workplace policies, discrimination, and the lack of affordable childcare. While these things are often true, new thinking, such as our work, The Orange Line, and Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, Lean In, suggests women are limited more by their own lack of ambition, internal biases, and priorities than by the external work and political environment. These recent ideas challenge women to step up and take more responsibility for their careers– not out of obligation or because they ‘should’ but because they want to and can, and to feel good about doing so.
Why would women resist this responsibility? Well, first, let’s face it; it is easier to find something external to blame when things get tough than do the hard work of overcoming barriers. We all do this a little. Second, women tend to take on responsibility for home, family and the community, so they haven’t left enough space to take care of themselves. They often learn this early on in their career. Third, women tend to chase a perfectionism standard that makes failures, even small ones, so socially unacceptable that they would rather aim lower and over-achieve the goal than aim high and fall short.
Blame the system.
She accepts lower pay, rigid work hours, and outdated rules and embraces the barriers as being out of her control. She finds relief in rationalization or . The system is rife with bias but if nothing is done, nothing ever changes and the barriers remain.
Take responsibility for everyone else.
She takes on all the little jobs at work, making sure that she supports her team. Or, she stays at home to raise the children, runs the PTA, and fills her day with activities “more important than work.” The community depends upon her philanthropy. Her selflessness wins her awards. But if she chooses these for others – for the illusion of ‘selflessness’ – and forgets about her needs, then she risks hurting her long-term security and earning power.
Keep it safe.
She refuses an overseas assignment or limits herself to support services, rather than business development. She works through lunch so she can check every box, rather than spend time “schmoozing.” She quits when she can’t give 110% on everything, rather than accepting 80% for things that don’t matter. She attributes success to others rather than herself. But this keeps her from progressing with her own self-development.
Instead, when women embrace responsibility for their own careers, they can change the system instead of blaming it. They can demand better support services and carve out more life-centric workplace policies. They can stand up to discrimination and use their power to change the world.
When women expect others to share responsibility for home, family, and the community, everyone becomes stronger and more capable. They free up time and creative energy to invest in their passions.
When women drop the perfectionism expectation, they free themselves up to take risks, make mistakes, and work on their own development.
The cost of failing to “Lean In” for women is high. Women make less money because they fail to negotiate and because even those who don’t leave the workforce completely to raise families limit their career potential by their family-focus. Women tend to live longer and many end up alone, so the effects of making less money are felt more strongly. And women don’t achieve power at the same proportion as men, so the structural barriers, discrimination, and inflexible policy-making are perpetuated.
The time has come for women to step up, lean in, and take responsibility for their careers. And when they change, the world will change in response.
 Reported in the Boston Globe, Uncommon Knowledge, May 19 from Haynes, M. & Heilman, M., “It Had to Be You (Not Me)!: Women’s Attributional Rationalization of Their Contribution to Successful Joint Work Outcomes,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).