Standing Up Against Leaning In


I don’t lean in, lean out, lean sideways, lean back…I stand up straight.  As a kid, my parents kept telling me to stand up straight and strong.  It created an aura of confidence, self-assurance, and supposedly, it was better for your back. In fact, we now know that standing strong can actually change your mood and confidence.

Perhaps because I’m short (5’ 1” on my driver’s license), I’ve always stood straight, because I had to. And I became tall – not in the physical sense, but intellectually, emotionally and professionally. Throughout my career, I never felt discriminated against because of my gender. Even after I had children, I never felt the need to do anything but stand up straight.

That’s why I have trouble with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. What I find missing in much of the Lean In discussion is the joy of parenthood. I didn’t “hear” any joy of being a mom, wife or even executive.  Children are not tactics or tasks to check off a to-do-list.  I’ve found being a mom an incredible privilege, responsibility, and indescribable joy. Admittedly, I’ve had a charmed career path that I worked hard at it, very hard, and built the credibility to ask, and get, what I wanted.  Having children and enjoying them, relishing in and with them, has been key to my success.

I waited to have children. Most of my friends and colleagues thought it was because of my high fancy career. They were wrong. I waited til I became closer to being a mom I’d want, especially since my mother was, yes really, the perfect mother for me. I didn’t want to inflict myself on a child when I wouldn’t even want myself as a mom. Having children has taught me so much about myself, about motivating the behavior you want to see and about managing people. Being a mom has matured me into a better human being. My children didn’t hold me back, they pushed me forward…and made me redefine and want different things out of my career. They positively redefined success and impact.

My stay-at-home mom taught me unwittingly taught me about being a ‘career woman’. She taught me the value of diverse thinking, of integrating art, music, science, and literature to look at the world differently, to create and recombine ideas. She taught me how to criticize without being critical, without even realizing I’d been criticized, and therefore motivated to change.  She taught me how to prioritize what really and truly mattered. She taught me that relationships matter more than stuff.  She taught me how to ‘present’ myself in public. She taught me to stand straight.

Sheryl’s path, my path, your path, isn’t prescriptive. And, as Stew Friedman points out, we all need options – to be professionals, parents, spouses, siblings, children. We need to stop using words like Leaning In, Leaning Out and just be ourselves. This may be idealistic, but if we don’t put it out there, we won’t aim for it. Our world, and I firmly believe the fabulous Millennials will force this, needs to encourage and enable diversity of work styles, not just thoughts, gender, race, creed. There are times that our work requires us to be front and center, but if it’s always the case, we end up being less than productive for our work and our families.

The Generation Xers are the transition between moms who stayed home and moms who worked. Most of our role models are our moms who mainly stayed home, if we were privileged to be in that socio-economic position. We are presented with a plethora of options that we still struggle to justify and judge.  I hope that our Gen-Y ‘kids’ – both women and men – will have an easier time defining their roles for themselves and their own relationships.  Our world, our work, our communities and our homes need them to. We need to stop requiring ourselves and others to lean in or lean up – and instead, encourage and support standing up straight. And it starts with us – with each of us.

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Image credit: sabelskaya / 123RF Stock Photo

Deborah Mills-Scofield is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early stage venture capital firm in Cleveland, OH, and an innovation and strategy consultant. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest-revenue generating patents ever for AT&T & Lucent.

  • Sharon E. Reed


    I truly appreciate your post. My definition of feminism is rooted in the power of choice, as opposed to a single prescriptive path. I also believe that when we define leadership (or leaning in) solely by external labels of ‘success’ such as title, fame, power and money, we miss the point of what true leadership and empowerment is all about.

    So long as the discussion around women’s leadership and empowerment continues to be defined in terms of privilege (or lack thereof), careerists (vs. stay-at-home-moms), and the uber-famous (or infamous), little true progress will be made. As you correctly point out, the key is embracing and honoring our authentic selves and standing up straight in the truth of who we are and the unique gifts each of us have to offer the world.


  • C Heflin

    Deb, great article – thank you for sharing your story and perspective!

    Though, the point of Sheryl’s book, Lean In, was to ignite a conversation. I’m sure she could have detailed the joys of her life, the ins-and-outs, but I feel her audience needed facts (research peppered throughout) and perspective (personal vignettes) in order to understand the choices women have today and start conversations of their own. She openly admits, in nearly every chapter, that her story may be vastly different from her audience – an admission that positioned the book as an introductory paragraph and not the whole essay of the very important topic of “leaning in”.

    And with your post – and many others like it – it has done just that, inspiring both men and women to have open and honest discussions, whether in agreement or not.

  • Interesting post-I have had a few people ask me what I thought of Sheryl’s book and the response that keeps showing up is that we should choose what makes sense for us as individuals. If you feel compelled to follow in Sheryl’s path then perhaps her words will offer some assistance for you. Just be sure first, who you are as an individual and what you really want. What does success or contributing mean to you?

    Language is an interesting thing though-we refer to mothers who choose for a period of time to focus on their children and running a household as “stay at home” vs. “working”-in my observations the mother [or father] who opts to focus there for a period rarely spends as much time at home as we might think. They are off to various child related activities, volunteering at all the child related things that the person working elsewhere can’t be at, and generally doing all that needs doing without the benefit of the compensation packages that working for others offers. I wish we could come up with a better way of ‘labelling’ these parents, since we humans seem to have an affection for labels, that better describes what they really do each and every day.

  • Deb I really enjoyed this post and in particular loved that you had someone who could teach you “how to criticize without being critical” – which is pretty much embodied in the post. This being who we are, or standing straight as you call it, requires both internal awareness but also internal discipline. It’s very easy to pick up on pressures (in particular unvoiced ones) and start morphing to better resemble what you think is right/appropriate. Thank you. Will share this widely.

  • Well said. We need to stop letting the status quo and people with high profiles dictate the norms for individuals. Instead we need to create our own unique defintion of success then stand tall and walk forward to make it so.

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