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Maria Shriver

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Why Women Must Lean In and Push Back

Posted: 03/07/2013 9:47 am

After weeks of pre-publication buzz and media discussion, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will To Lead, finally hits bookstores and digital devices on Monday.

I count Sheryl as a friend, both online and off. I've read the book and applaud her for getting people talking again about challenges women face in achieving equal opportunity, power and pay with men. It takes a lot of guts to step into the public arena and, to borrow a phrase from Brené Brown, "dare greatly."

Sheryl's book is chock-full of valuable tips, tools and takeaways for working women, particularly young women like my daughters who are just starting out in the professional world. She's encouraging women to "lean in" to their careers by, among other things, reaching for opportunities, taking a seat at the table, raising expectations, withstanding criticism, managing fear of failure, taking responsibility for mistakes, communicating hard truths and making "real partners" out of their spouses.

At its best, the book is a comprehensive career advice manual for women seeking professional advancement -- and a persuasive call to leadership for the next generation. If young women are to reach their greatest potential in any area they choose to pursue, they'll need guides like Sheryl Sandberg to step out and show them how to navigate the challenges and complexities of being a woman in modern life.

Some commentators have argued, though, that as a "feminist manifesto" the book over-emphasizes the internal, self-imposed obstacles that individual women must overcome while shortchanging the larger, external barriers that would help make many more women's lives successful. They argue that Sandberg should be using her platform, power and position to advocate for policy and legal changes, not personal ones. I see these arguments as two sides of the same coin.

The larger point, though, is that the persistent internal and external barriers that women encounter are no longer just affecting women. In the United States today, women are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American households. In the majority of these families, work means not just personal success and advancement, but family survival. The money that women bring home now is so critical to their families and the stakes now are so high, that the issues that used to be "women's issues" now profoundly affect children, men and society as a whole.

Four years ago, I debuted The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything with the Center for American Progress. It was a detailed look at the impact everywhere in our society of the explosive growth of women in the workforce. The following year, The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Takes on Alzheimer's made some startling discoveries about the enormous burden of this disease on women, who make up the majority of patients and unpaid caregivers. Later this year, The Shriver Report returns with a follow-up study looking at why working women, who are the core of the American economy, the core of the American family, are more economically vulnerable than ever before, and what we as a society can do about it.

The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that more than 100 million Americans live in poverty or near poverty, and 70 percent of them are women and the children who depend on them. That's an almost inconceivable 70 million people. Now, consider that women's earning power still lags significantly compared with men's, about 78 cents to a $1 for the same job according to the national Women's Law Center. The disparities are even greater for African-American women (62 cents) and Latinas (53 cents).

That means millions of working women are already leaning in about as far as they can -- doing their best to provide, parent and care-take while trying to preserve their own well-being under the pressures of everyday life. They are bouncing around between the demands of career and care. Never mind "having it all." They're already doing it all and just barely getting by. Juggling so many demands on their time, money and energy has them teetering on the brink of economic catastrophe, where one unfortunate incident -- a lost job, a child's medical emergency, a missed paycheck, a cut in hours worked -- sends them tumbling over the edge, with dire consequences for them and their families.

Overcoming these challenges will require much more than Leaning In, although that is an important part of the equation. While women can and do individually Lean In, I would argue that the time has also come for all of us, collectively, to Push Back -- to push back from the brink that threatens to envelop our sisters in hardship, stress, debt, foreclosure and, for too many, poverty.

Women can't push back from the brink without external, structural change, and this is where we have to recognize that all of us, women and men, have a role to play to push for meaningful change. We need to ask more from the institutions that set the rules and define our lives -- and we need to ask more from each other. Women need to leverage the power of unity, community and shared vision.

Too many people tend to see the need for change strictly as women's issues, not what they really are: family and economic issues. How can we sustain healthy families and achieve a vibrant, fully employed economy if government, corporate, educational and faith-based organizations cling to outdated policies and principles that actually impede women's ability to fulfill both their professional aspirations and family needs?

How can we achieve this kind of consensus in such polarized times as these, when pointing fingers and assessing blame passes for political debate? It all starts with acknowledging that the economic health of the country and modern American families is better served with smart, pro-family policies that enable women to maximize all of their professional skills and family responsibilities, while also enabling men to share in the caregiving far more than they already do.

We need to honor the experiences of women who are doing it all for their families but barely getting by. Their economic insecurity should alarm us all. We need to consolidate our power behind the political and organizational leaders who get it and stand with us in making change happen. We need to galvanize support for those institutions that have already seen the light -- that programs supporting a work/family balance benefit not only employees but bottom lines. That means pushing for flexible work schedules, pushing for pay equity, pushing for affordable childcare and pushing for paid family leave.

Simply put, we need not only to lean in. It's imperative that we push back, too.

Tomorrow is International Women's Day, a worldwide celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women. In some countries, including China, Russia, Vietnam and Bulgaria, it's a national holiday. In the U.S., we don't need a national holiday so much as a national recognition that women's economic security is irrevocably connected to our country's economic prosperity.

By pushing back from the brink together, we can make that happen. I'd say that would be a true cause for celebration.

I hope that as we continue this conversation, we do so with the understanding that no two women's experiences are the same, that we all have different choices to make, and that we all have something vitally important to bring to the table -- be it the boardroom table or the kitchen table.

 

Follow Maria Shriver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mariashriver

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