Living a big life


A dear friend of mine has two daughters. Her dream for them, she says, is to lead Big Lives. She wants them to know that they can grow up to do anything they wish.

It was something I thought about when reading about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which will be published in March.

Previews of the book are already generating international discussion. One of the provocative statements Sandberg makes is that women are, perhaps, partly at fault for limiting their careers.

Sheryl Sandberg.
Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: Reuters

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes, according to a preview in The New York Times. “We internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.”

For many women, it seems ambition is still a dirty word, associated with Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour (aka the one with the pointy bra), social climbers and backstabbing politicians. When psychiatrist Anna Fels interviewed dozens of women for her 2005 book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives, she found that “none of them would admit to being ambitious, associating the term with the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. Instead, the constant refrain was, ‘It’s not about me, it’s the work’, or, ‘I hate to promote myself’. Men simply do not talk this way.”

Sandberg suggests that women rationalise the decision not to be overly-ambitious by citing family concerns.

“Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, 'I’ll take a slightly less interesting speciality because I’m going to want more balance one day’,” she has said. “Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, 'I’m not even sure I should go for partnership [at the firm], because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back [from their careers]. The problem is, often they don’t even realise it.”

It’s sobering stuff. Are women really checking out of their careers before they’ve even tried to get pregnant? Sandberg doesn’t think this choice is consciously made; rather, it’s expressed through a string of choices that ultimately mean that once they do have kids, there may not be a compelling financial or meaningful reason to return to work. Meanwhile, often the male partner in the relationship has been constantly building his career and is the main breadwinner by the time the couple choose to have children. Of course, there are many ways to successfully combine career and motherhood, starting with a supportive partner and a progressive workplace. Westpac CEO Gail Kelly took two children to a job interview, and PR director Roxy Jacenko built a nursery in her office. Marissa Meyer was hired by Yahoo! when six months pregnant (and only took two weeks maternity leave).

This is where the argument gets divisive. “Why is it a bad thing to select a job with flexibility? There is so much more to life than earning money,” wrote one friend on Twitter. Others ask why being a mother is seen as the lesser option.


Of course, the truth is that most mothers want to be present and involved with their children’s lives, and don’t want to be back in the boardroom two days after giving birth.

But perhaps what Sandberg is really saying is that if you scupper your career early in the piece, you won’t be giving yourself true choice when decision time comes. If you succeed, you’ll achieve more than you thought you previously could. If you fail, you’ll learn something valuable in the process.

“Do not leave before you leave,” she told students graduating from New York’s Barnard College for women in 2011. “Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”

Anna Fels says that really, ambition is about “getting appropriate recognition for your skills. There is no evidence to suggest that the desire to acquire skills or achieve recognition is less in women than men. In fact, achieving recognition is an important emotional need.”

A big life is not just about being a CEO. It’s about living a rich, meaningful life - whatever that looks like for you. And surely that’s something all of us want for our children.