The Real Reason Women Aren’t Leaning In

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

Last weekend in the midst of reading the buzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s much-lauded Lean In, I caught Chris Anderson’s SXSW interview with Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors. When asked about work-life balance, Musk made it clear that he doesn’t have much, and also doesn’t suffer guilt about not seeing his kids much and working when with them.

Perhaps an extreme example, but Musk sheds light on why men more consistently “lean in” while many women don’t—he just doesn’t feel the conflict.  Yet women “face a lot of inner barriers—voices that, as [Sandberg] puts it, urge you to ‘leave before you leave.’ ” wrote Arianna Huffington in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s no wonder, then, that a recent report by the American Psychological Association found more women feeling stressed at work than men, and that a recent Harvard University study found that women who are stressed are more likely to suffer heart disease.

What is finally surfacing  is that it’s not just having the proverbial ‘two jobs, family and work’ that’s causing stress—it’s the significance these roles and responsibilities play in our self-worth and what it means to us to be successful. Cisco’s Chief Technology & Strategy Officer Padmasree Warrior, when she spoke at Wisdom 2.0 last month said that the mere term “work-life balance” makes it seem like always in conflict: “What causes stress is often not the decision itself but the guilt associated with the decision to work or be home.”

The beliefs that encourage us to lead, nurture or “lean in” are a mix of foundational beliefs, solidified early in life, that make us who we are. They aren’t “bad” per se; they’re what help inform and shape our priorities, our expectations, and our goals—as well as what we do to live up to them. They define for us what it means to be a good leader; a loving mother; caring wife; a supportive employee. But these barriers can also hold us back.

I call them Iceberg beliefs because these ideas, formed in childhood, loom large beneath the surface of your mind and drive your behavior. In fact, often you don’t even know they’re there (and even if you do, you’re only seeing the tip of it).

Here are some examples of how these icebergs trip you up: “Being a good mother matters most in life” will create problems when it collides with “I must achieve at all costs.” Or, “You must be available at all times for all people,” which runs squarely against “It’s wrong to put your own needs first.” Throw these two in with “Being a good mother matters most in life” and you’re going to be stressed indeed, whether you run a public company or a sales department.

Women aren’t the only ones who struggle with icebergs—but theirs become particularly relevant in a discussion around workplace stress.

The good news is that you’re not stuck with these for life—you can begin to change the power of one of these icebergs by examining its role and relevance in your everyday life. For instance, by replacing “To be a good leader means being available 24/7,” with “Being a good leader means being there for my team when it makes sense and without enabling their dependence on me.” (You could easily swap out “leader” for “mother” here, too.)

Here’s another one that may trip you up: “Taking time for myself to exercise is selfish.” Rework that belief to support instead of vilify your efforts: “Investing in my own health by taking time to exercise helps me be at my best, which also makes me a better leader (or parent).” In order to enact real change we must collectively adjust the way we in which we perceive and conceive of success, obligation, ambition, fulfillment. Since we acquire these beliefs early on in life, the sooner we begin to collectively reshape our values around work, work life balance, family time, the sooner we can begin to shape the beliefs, and thus the behaviors, of the next generation.