By
Melissa Harris Perry
updated 3/15/2013 5:50:29 PM ET 2013-03-15T21:50:29

It's not just a matter of having it all. We have to decide what we want to accomplish in the world.

In the public debate raging over Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In, we should pay special attention to the voices of young people–women and men of different backgrounds.

This week alone, I have heard from dozens of Millennials in their 20s and 30s, all from working class and middle class families. We know that “leaning in” to careers comes at a cost: it requires us to “lean on” other people for duties like cleaning and childcare. The people we lean on are often from the same underprivileged communities that some of us come from. In a relentless work culture for all of us, from domestic workers to young professionals, we are starting to ask ourselves a critical question missing from the debate: what are we all “leaning” towards?

It took until my thirties for me to answer that question. I was born into a South Asian family where women have played the role of wives, mothers, and caregivers for generations. My mother fought hard against cultural norms and economic obstacles so that I could be the first to pursue a path outside the home and in Sandberg’s words, “lean in” to my career.

I went on to top tier universities, where I became connected to a whole new set of women pursuing powerful professions. As a Stanford undergrad, I found that the hardest-working women were the ones who regularly gathered in my dorm room. We hatched dreams to become lawyers, scholars, and doctors, naming ourselves “the Pocket.”

If you asked us why we were working so hard, we did not say we were working to “have it all”–a high-powered career and children. Rather, we wanted to make meaningful change in the world. We wanted a balanced life where we could take good care of our children, family, friends, and our own health. We were determined to stay true to these commitments as we entered traditionally male-dominated jobs in law offices, universities, government and politics.

Now, ten years after graduation, we are in our early thirties and navigating our way. Most of us are starting demanding new jobs, some are finishing graduate studies; one had an unexpected pregnancy while in medical school. All of us struggled to survive a near-recession. Each of us has accrued a staggering amount of student debt. In fact, total student debt has tripled over the past eight years, now standing at an unthinkable $966 billion in the fourth quarter of last year.

To meet that debt, we are entering professions that expect us to work at all hours in what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls “time macho.” Our work cultures demands not 40-hour but 70-80-hour work weeks, even in jobs that do not offer Wall Street salaries. Several of us were lucky to find partners who share our egalitarian values, but as Evergreen State College professor Stephanie Coontz noted in The New York Times, none of us is in a labor market that allows us to practice those values.

As for starting a family, the latest research in fertility tells us that time is running out fast: we should start a family before 35 if we want to have biological children without health risks. But if we do have children, we jeopardize our prospects for long-term career advancement in workplaces that do not provide flexible hours, adequate parental leave, on-site or subsidized daycare, or a formal way to slow down, work from home or work part-time, and still pursue a long-term track for advancement. In sum, we have discovered that success has earned us careers that can threaten our health and compromise our core commitments.

“It might be tough for us,” said Jessica Jenkins, an immigration lawyer and college classmate. “But things are way harder for my clients. Most are mothers working inflexible hours without sick pay, if they’re able to work at all. A staggering number endure domestic violence. Too many are marginalized because of race, sexual orientation, immigration status, education, or class. I guess this is why I’m frustrated that the media thinks that the most urgent item on the feminist agenda is a book by a corporate executive.”

We can “lean in” all we want, but no amount of personal ambition can change what systemic economic and social policies could do for women and men in our generation. The system is stacked against not just corporate women, but people of all classes and professions. We need leaders who will revolutionize work-life policies, innovate new work cultures, and deepen the discourse on what constitutes success.

Questioning what we’re “leaning” towards is even more essential in a cultural moment when many of our most prominent female role models are corporate executives.

“I don’t want to ‘lean in’ if it means it’s only for my own gain,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want power and prestige if it means I am perpetuating the inequality around me. As far as I’m concerned, my struggle is inextricably linked with others.”

To be sure, I know many young women who still want to make partner at a law firm or climb the corporate ladder. These women ought to have the freedom to pursue those paths. But we should not pretend that ambition alone will guarantee their success, especially if success includes more than a corner office. Nor should we assume that climbing the highest rungs of our professions automatically breaks down barriers for all women.

In this critical moment, when public discussion could influence employers and policymakers, it’s time for Millennials to join the debate and redefine what success means to us.

As for “the Pocket,” we are still working hard to live healthy, balanced, financially secure, and meaningful lives. We are not unhappy. We never wanted to “have it all” for ourselves. We wanted to have enough for everyone. And that is what we’re leaning toward.

Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader. She is Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to help mobilize faith communities in social action. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project.  You can find her at her blog and on Twitter.

Valarie was a guest for host Melissa Harris-Perry’s Saturday discussion on this topic. See the first part of it above, and the rest on MHPshow.com.

Video: Women, power, and impediments to progress

  1. Closed captioning of: Women, power, and impediments to progress

    >>> this morning, my question -- why is mayor michael bloomberg trying to shame single mothers ? and the connection of guns, race and mental health , and how i almost ended up with a career as a funeral director. and right now people are talking about "leaning in" so go ahead, "lean in." let the river run let all of the dreamers wake the neighbors

    >>> good morning. i'm melissa harris-perry. it is primetime saturday in 1974 , and the country is tuned into cbs, and the network is airing the popular sit-crom about a single white woman in her 30s making her way in the world of work. we had been introduced to heroine mary richards when these opening credits rolled for the first time. you're going to make it after all

    >> and with that hat toss, we became equated with mary as played by mary tyler moore on the e upon mouse show of a spunky show that who was the smartest nern the office, and in the seven years she son air, she con fronts issues like equal play and sexual liberation , and a host of other personal, and ethical and political struggles. also in 1974 on a friday night, cbs debuts a different kind of show whose opening credits rolled over a very different kind of song. good times ain't it time to meet the payment ain't it time to be afraid in a time that you are out from under not getting hassled not getting hustled

    >> extra points if you know the words. you remember "good times" and the evans and the struggling black family struggling in the black project . the evans' household may have been headed by james, but the heart and soul is florida evans who is the fierce woman trying to keep her family afloat in the post civil rights era which meant little for the struggles she faces. florida does not work outside of the home, but damn if she is not always working hard inside of her home. as a '70s baby, these are the two models of women i was raised on. i mean, i never missed a single episode of these shows or honestly of the reruns and the spunky white woman leaning into the career and meeting gendered battles of sexism every way and the married black matriarch who leans into her family with every spiritual and financial and emotional resource she has to make it work. these fictional women are on my mind right now as i watch the heated discussions, primarily among women over this book. "lean in," women , work and the will to lead. it does not go on sale until tuesday, but the book and the author facebook coo cheryl sandberg are everywhere. this is sandberg on the cover of this week's "time" magazine, and she h be sitting down with 60 minutes in an interview to promote the book. next month, it will be featured in "cosmopolitan" magazine, and reviewed this weekend by "the new york times", and the most rekre recent of the most several mentions of sandberg 's book that has received in the paper and a record, and the first was a february story that sparked the back lash and the back lash to the backlash to the, you know, the backlash as the heart of the debate is the central idea of sandberg 's book that among the real deeply entrenched barriers to women 's success in the workplace, there is another impediment standing in their progress, women , themselves. sandberg 's advice, don't leave before you leave is to urge women away from making choices that can derail or diminish the career pros spekts before they get off of the ground. in the book, she writes, we hold ourselves back in ways of big and small and by lacking self-confidence and not raising our hands when we are pulling back and when we should be lean leaning in. we ternlize the negative messages and lower our expectations of what we can achie achieve. that is not bad as far as advice goes, but maybe not so good either according to the critics who are considering the source, because this self-help book for the average working woman comes from a professional woman who is anything but average. sandberg is one of "fortune" magazine's most 50 powerful women in business and she holds the reins on a $66 billion tech company and millionaire many times over. she is privileged and elite and out of touch say the voices of one side of the debate, but what about the women who have been robbed of the structural inequalities to even make choices about the career, but others see values in the sandberg 's decisions. and that brings me back to mary in florida , because 24 is not a question of either/or, but both/and, and you see that mary tyler moore and florida evans are not at opposition of each o other at the polar ends of this debate, but close enough to one another to share important common ground and opening up a space for women to lean into their lives makes it understand for women to understand how to intersect to make it mutually beneficial for all women , but it equally is recognizing the challenges for mary and nearly impossible for florida like wage disparities and the child care and the health care and harassment and discrimination, and women will only be able to lean so far. at a table, women who know what they are talking about. katrina van der hubl, and valerie core is a filmmaker, and fellow at auburn cemetery, and joy reid, editor of grio.com, and also the ceo of cinnabon who operating franchises in 22 count countries. all right. what do we make of the book and the debate it has sparked.

    >> well, for women , it is also difficult, because as you said when a wealthy woman who comes from a certain privileged class writes a book sort of telling other women how to run their careers, it is easy to roll your eyes and say it does not apply to me, especially if you are a person out in the world not able to make decisions and it was ya yahoo sclm who made built the day care next to her office and telling other women they cannot work from their home. it does come across as looking truncated. i think that a lot of what she sheryl sandberg is saying is true, because we self-sabotage and some say that the roommate in your head this is negative and telling you, you can't do that or you should not speak up, or you are going to come across as crazy.

    >> this is interesting, valerie, and part of why i wanted you at the table because i have been talking to my college students and young women finishing up school or going into their law school experiences, and they are hearing something here that is meaningful to them in part, because, you know, she talks about this sense that you have to start planning for, you know, for your family work-balance before you pr dating anyone seriously. does this resonate for you?

    >> absolutely. i just returned from my honeymoon, and so --

    >> here we are at work.

    >> and here i am, and this whole debate is intersecting in a raw way with the questions that i am struggling with everyday, how to start a family and continue building a career. it is on the minds and constant topic of conversation for anyone in their 30s, and now their 20s. and what we are seeing is that the conversation fails to are recognize the kinds of specific struggles that we are noticing in our lives, that we believe that women 's liberation won't be possible in america until it is possible for every single woman to live the good life. unfortunately, in the process of leaning in, who are are women in power leaning on? nannies, housekeepers and doe domestic workers and care givers and millions of women with less privileges and immigrant women and women who are are struggling and so rather than taking this as the banner for women 's advancement and we ought to think of it as a way to lift up all women across the board.

    >> well, i am struck how the immedia media has first of all unbelievable the attention, but --

    >> it is amazing.

    >> so much of the media it seems to me has been about pitting this as a cat fight . they want women to debating other women . i think that we should be fighting injustice and not each other.

    >> and jody canter and moreen dowd have helped to create that.

    >> yes, and amplified by a media that seeks in that debate more of a cat fight than perhaps exist exists, because listen, i'm not kumbaya hold hands, but i believe in fighting injustice and not each other, and there is a serious debate to be had and the discussion of the media, think of how many women are cut out of representation. you don't hear about a woman i wrote about when the ann marie slaughter, atlantic cover story and ann marie vasquez, a mother of three, a janitor, and cleaning buildings as jesse jackson says takes the early bus if she can't take the late bus. so in this hand, she has gotten a raw deal , and all power to a woman who bants to make feminism 101 or rosie the riveter 101, so let her have her voice. she is not marissa mayor of yahoo sc yahoo! who said, everyone must come to work.

    >> and it is a pleasant book and i sat and read it last night, and it is reading like a commencement address. and the thing about it though that is so surprising about the level of angst that it is giving is that i keep thinking about the steve jobs ' biography that i read last year. and jobs was not a nice human being , and he was high a lot. i mean, that all seems to be very clear in his road to succe success, and she is still in many ways, still doing her girl social saishgs and sization socialization, and it is let me help other people, and maybe it is set no all that complex, but it is still not steve jobs .

    >> yes, and one with of the challenges of addressing injustice is the level of access. one of the largest criticisms of sheryl is that she has all of the accesses in the world, and instead of criticizing that, we should build a bridge from her story and highlight the in incredible women leaders who don't have the access, but still doing great things and paving the way for their daughters and creating great social movements in their communities to help to elevate other women leaders. i'm on the board of directors for this women 's food service forum, and as a woman growing up in corporate america , i had a bunch of men to work with and no examples of what is possible in my company, but there are groups and movements in society that allow young women to say what is possible, and we should not fault a book that highlights what is possible, but we should try to fill in the gap between this woman on high.

    >> and we are just starting, and i promise, we have a lot more on exactly this, and we are leaning in. lots of ladies at the table when we come

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