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Women & Careers: “Leaving Before Leave?” A Critical View of One Mom’s Take

A friend recently pointed out a 2009 Fortune online piece in which Sheryl Sandberg, current COO of Facebook, refers to the behavior of some women as “leaving before leave.”  It’s a specific reference to women who are of child-bearing age and are likely to slow their careers even before they become pregnant, some before they are even in an anticipated relationship.  She says it’s a mistake.  I disagree.

Sheryl Sandberg: Mom, Executive Photo Credit: Google

She writes:

“I…believe that once you have a child, it becomes necessary to make real changes, including potentially deemphasizing your career. But slowing down too early is a mistake that too many women make today, often without even realizing it. Because they sincerely want to stay in the workforce, they try to make room for everything and they slow down–or unconsciously pull back–well before their circumstances actually change. By the time they fully return, they are in jobs that no longer challenge or reward them enough to hold their attention.

In the greater context of the piece, I do think there are essential points Sandberg glossed over.

Sandberg is hardly representative of all managers, male or female.  I can think of two examples: one where a woman got laid off right after she told her manager she was pregnant; one where a woman got laid off soon after returning to work after her second child.  Would a manager admit the connection?  Of course not.  But both had evidence that their “choices” played roles.  And these women DIDN’T “leave before leave.”  Imagine if they had!

Choices

Difficult Choices to Make

Making Hard Choices

Sandberg writes:

No one can know in advance the choices they will make after going through a life change as profound as becoming a parent. But if you want to preserve the option of staying in the workforce and building a career, my advice is simple. Stay fully engaged, take on new and interesting challenges, and do so until you have a child. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until your life actually changes. Then you can make the decision to keep driving quickly, slow down, or step out of the car.

Choosing to take time off to raise a child or care for a sick parent CAN be considered part of a career.  A career spans decades and includes many life changes, such as advancement, talent development opportunities, extended time off, and the plan to return.  In a society where moms work on a Thursday and give birth on a Friday, “leave before leave” can help preserve sanity.

There are many industries such as law, journalism, and medicine where hours are long and erratic.  If a person doesn’t decide to pull back before he or she is in a relationship which might lead to a desired family, that relationship may never materialize.  From my experience in journalism, you don’t even realize you’re on the road to becoming a “news nun” until you’ve almost gotten your habit and blessing.  You’re having too much fun, you’re embracing your responsibility to inform the public, and you better have a pet sitter on speed dial for those last minute trips to breaking news sites.

The Biggest Oversights

Most importantly, I think Sandberg misses the point that everyone, male or female, engages in “leave before leave” to some degree fairly often.  It potentially has little to do with success or job performance.  It’s about finding work/life balance in varying degrees.  Most of corporate America experiences a tiny bit of “leave before leave” every Friday after 3pm between Memorial Day and Labor Day.   Or how about pending weddings, vacations, and even just a hot date that night?  People naturally pull back in the face of other priorities.  It may not hinder performance, but bad timing could impact advancement.

She also does not define “career,” even in her own view.  How does she define balance between title, paycheck, direct reports, benefits, ability to balance life, chances save the planet, feel fulfilled, etc?  We all split this pie differently, and one recipe is not necessarily better.

Sandberg suggests forging ahead no matter what life obstacle gets in the way.  She writes that she hired someone who became pregnant soon after joining Facebook.  Sandberg herself took the Facebook job upon her return to work after the birth of her second child.  Her main theme is this: there’s never a good time.

She’s right, there is often never a perfect time.

Stop Your Career At Your Own Risk

Stop Your Career At Your Own Risk

Sandberg is outspoken about her hard work to provide leadership opportunities for women and deserves all the attention she gets for it.  But at the end of the day, she has to report to someone and make her numbers.  I strongly doubt she’d hire me, 8 months pregnant, even if I was the best “whatever” on earth.  The key is knowing when something is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity and when it isn’t.

I Practiced “Leaving Before Leave”

I think by “leaving before leave,” I have shown that I respect potential employers. Making a huge investment in me, an unknown, only to need a replacement in a few months during maternity leave is asking a lot.  In a “need it now” society where employers have work to be done or risk losing headcount without immediate hires, most look at current availability.  Yet, I have already had positive response from hiring managers and clients as a result.  I’m not sitting idly by; I have continued to work at a level that fits my current situation.

Consider the numbers:  According to the CDC, 4 million women give birth each year.  The US Census reports that 56% of moms with infants in 2004 are working, down from a record high of 59% in 1998.  And 51% of women returned to work within 4 months of having their first children.  True, we cannot assess the “quality” of those jobs.

You have to consider your job as well as your career.  Sandberg talks about conversations she’s had with women who didn’t even have boyfriends and yet were pulling back, planning to have children.  (She didn’t mention the rising trend of single motherhood by choice, by the way) If women approached their relationships with the same energy and drive that they put towards work, that boyfriend-husband-baby path may not be as long as Sandberg implies.  That entire process can take less than two years.  Sandberg would argue that two years of pulling back will greatly and adversely affect my prospects going forward.  As I still get calls for jobs and assignments, I disagree.

It has to do with the person and how that person tackles ANY challenge, personal or professional.

In addition to Sandberg being among a tiny proportion of potentially understanding managers, she is likely among a small proportion of high wage earners.  She doesn’t discuss her childcare options, which are likely choices not experienced by the majority of working moms.  Former TV personality and current entrepreneur Joan Lunden is mom to 4 children under 7 and 3 others.  On a Thursday May 20th appearance on ABC’s The View, she freely agreed that being married to an owner of summer camps and having the resources to comfortably provide for her kids makes all the difference in balancing work and family with the help of her husband.

Sandberg gives job applicants the option of expressing their plans to have children.  She asks them directly, which is a questionable practice according to the EEOC.  It’s illegal to discriminate in the course of hiring, firing and other conditions of employment based on pregnancy.  With that in mind, she might argue that I should not have considered my pregnancy in a job search.

Hard Work Pays Off

Sandberg has an admirable life at which she worked very hard to earn.  She’s Harvard educated (undergrad and grad).  Her resume includes being the highest ranking woman at Google and Chief of Staff at the US Department of the Treasury.  She’s now half of what could be called a Silicon Valley “power couple,”  married to SurveyMonkey CEO, David Goldberg.  In other words, she’s no slouch.

Her dad is a well-known eye doctor in Florida.  Her mom is a teacher.  Together, they founded the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry.  In 1975, they were detained, questioned, and expelled from the USSR.  This is a passionate family.  Sheryl’s efforts clearly have deep roots in a family with strong values and drive.

Sandberg worked as an economist at the World Bank on international issues. She now works for a company that touches 500 million people worldwide.  She has a clear view of the world as a whole.  I would just suggest that when needed, she shrink her world view to realize a wider range of women and what we offer.  It will be several months before I know if my decision was a mistake.  But I am  confident that it was not. That confidence will count for something.

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