Yes, Lean In (But Go Your Own Way)

“This House Would Lean In”: transcript from Cambridge Union debate

Adele Barlow
10 min readMar 27, 2017

In December 2016 I was honoured to be invited to participate in the Presidential debate in the historic Cambridge Union debate hall at Cambridge University, alongside Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP. I’m grateful to the Cambridge Union for inviting me to take part.

We debated the motion ‘This House Would Lean In’. The brief was as follows:

In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO published ‘Lean In’ which has since gone on to become a powerful and controversial brand of feminism. Sandberg encourages women to make ambitious choices in their careers and not shy away from actions most attributed to their male colleagues. Widely criticized for assuming women have agency, and emphasising too greatly the position of the privileged few who have already achieved, the Union debates whether this approach to women and the world of work is truly inclusive and if we should all Lean In.

While I have always admired Sandberg’s strengths, my years with Escape the City instilled a deep appreciation for the variety of ways in which women can embrace their ambition. ‘Leaning in’ does not necessarily have to involve becoming a corporate CEO. I struggled with which team to side with because I resent ‘fix the woman’ solutions, but ultimately chose to speak for the proposition. As the second speaker, I argued the below.

You ladies in the room are Cambridge University students — nobody needs to tell you to reach for the stars. You — might dream of being a lawyer. You — might want to be a banker. You — might dream of starting your own business.

But what if I told you that you — the future lawyer — has only a 2 in 10 chance of reaching partner? That you — the banker — are 90% more likely than your male colleagues to stop working after your first child? That you — the entrepreneur — are 98% less likely to get venture capital funding?

If I had heard those numbers at your age, part of me might have felt a little depressed but part of me would have thought — well, I’ll just try harder. I’ll beat the odds.

You don’t sit in a room like this unless you have hunger. And that hunger usually refuses to take no for an answer.

If you’re a woman, what I can’t explain to you is how your hunger will be tested as your career develops. I can’t explain how disillusioning it might feel when a male client hits on you, and how angry it might make you because he’s old enough to be your Dad. Or how torn you might feel when you’ve got a boyfriend who threatens to break up with you if you don’t put away your Blackberry, as well as a boss who seems to need your attention 24/7.

What I can tell you is that your hunger will be tested — and you might get tired. When it feels like you’ve been swimming against the current for far too long, sometimes you’ll just want to float. While babysitting a friend’s kid, Finding Nemo came up, and one of its lines summed up what I think Sheryl Sandberg was really trying to say, which is this: “Just keep swimming.”

Yes, the tide needs to turn — yes, external barriers for women in leadership need to come down — but we have no idea how long that could take. The opposition has argued that leaning in places too much emphasis on women’s agency, and I agree that institutional changes need to occur — but I do think those changes will be led from within the system.

To me, leaning in is about changing the narrative of what it means to be a woman today.

It means not apologising for having your own dreams, that are bigger than defining yourself in relation to a man. It means removing internal barriers. Historically, women have been encouraged to be nesters. Leaning in encourages us to be hunters, and I’m going to show that this is what will lead to system change.

Firstly I’m going to talk about how leaning in helps women to gain influence in the workplace. Then I will show that leaning in is about remaking the world of work. Lastly, I will argue that leaning in is broader than becoming a corporate CEO — to me, leaning in has always been about challenging the status quo. My first point is that leaning in helps women to gain influence in the workplace.

While the opposition has talked about changing the system in theory, this is not so simple in practice.

Frank Dobbin, a sociology professor at Harvard, has completed extensive research on corporate diversity programs. He has concluded that many “don’t have any effect or backfire”. The usual tools — like diversity training, hiring tests, grievance systems — tend to actually encourage bias and activate rebellion.

But he found that mentoring has an especially powerful impact on women’s success. If women want to make it to the top, they need a mentor — someone who is going to advocate for their success. UK women with mentors (as opposed to those without) are 52 per cent more likely to move up the ladder. My mentors have been an invaluable source of guidance, encouragement, and support, especially during difficult times.

If women don’t lean in, and they don’t excel, they decrease the likelihood of finding suitable mentors. Finding mentors is already hard. Two-thirds of senior men in the US are hesitant to even have one-on-one contact with junior women for fear of gossip or lawsuits.

A girlfriend who works in finance was talking about how difficult it is to build relationships with senior men. These days, if you get groped, you can complain. But if you’re the only woman on the team, and at a conference, all the men retreat to a whisky bar at 1am, and you miss important conversations? Those are the trickier issues. As one banker put it — when it comes to Saturday morning golf, her boss is “more likely to call John instead of Jenny, you know what I mean?”

So while some might some that Sandberg’s advice is too targeted towards a certain subset of women, I would argue — at this stage, it should be. In any successful startup, it is common knowledge that you don’t start off by targeting everyone. With limited resources, you go after your warmest target audience, you define the demographic, you define the goal, and you chase that and solidify solving that before you target broader.

The same applies when it comes to getting women into higher leadership positions. Not all women would be able to hold their own on the golf trip or in the whisky bar. But some women would. And those women need to keep doing that, and finding their mentors, and then becoming mentors themselves.

If the status quo works for those at the top, nothing is going to change unless challengers make it to the top of the organisation.

I was talking to a senior manager at an investment bank who is on the board of the women’s network at his firm. He has two daughters and cares about gender equality. Yet the reason there is a women’s network is because senior women asked to start one. Women have to lean in, and become leaders, to initiate a system change that men then join. This brings me to my second point — that leaning in helps to remake the world of work.

‘Leaning in’ is about creating a new way of being a woman in the workplace.

By entering the workspace in larger numbers, we can infiltrate and allow an organic recalibration of the cultural norms that govern leadership spaces today.

I spoke to a well-known entrepreneur who used to work as a banker, and he said one of the best bosses he’d ever had, was a woman named Lisa. He said, “Lisa didn’t care what anyone thought about her. I sat beside this one trader for a year and the things that would come out his mouth, were disgusting — but Lisa would shoot right back, she was as ballsy as anybody else.”

When I told a girlfriend about this, she said — “But what if I’m more sensitive than Lisa? How can women who are tougher than I am, help change things for all of us?”

This led to talking about a friend of ours called Katie. Katie is a lawyer, and at a party hosted by her firm, two associates behaved appallingly, groping women, making disgusting comments and generally being drunk idiots. The trainees affected were too scared to complain. Katie — an associate — witnessed all this behaviour, as did other people in the firm. Nobody said anything. Katie thought it was disgraceful. So she made a formal complaint.

One guy got fired (because this wasn’t the first time for him) and the other guy got suspended. Having a tough skin, like Lisa, or Katie — isn’t enough. Leaning in means standing up for ourselves and affecting the change we want to see.

The opposition argued that Leaning In places too great a focus on individualised strategies, at the expense of investigating aspects such as institutional factors. However… no institution changes until individuals try to change it.

I can promise you this: men do not sit around and discuss how they are going to make the workplace a better place for women. Katie’s office changed when she chose to change it, and now her firm is a more friendly environment for ALL women there. The more women lean in, the more they can infiltrate the workplace, challenging and changing the culture for themselves and for other women, or, as my next point shows — creating new systems altogether.

My final point is that ‘leaning in’ is about more than climbing the corporate ladder.

Over the past year, I worked with Lexoo, an online platform that matches businesses with independent lawyers. It allows lawyers to leave big corporate firms, and break out on their own. It’s a great option for women lawyers with children who want more control over their schedule.

Lexoo is an example of a new type of work system that can only exist when women lean in — since Lexoo requires any lawyer to have at least four years’ experience, if women lawyers had stopped working straight after their training contracts, they would not have been eligible to join the platform.

Leaning in does not have to mean becoming partner — it might for some, but not for all. At the start of your career, leaning in might mean working at a magic circle firm. A decade later, it might mean starting your own practice. Our dreams change as we do.

The idea of a woman chasing her own dreams is still a relatively recent one.

In the 1950s we had the images of quintessential housewives who stayed at home to raise kids and cook and clean, supporting the man as he went out to achieve his dreams. A woman’s world was narrowed to the one inside the home, and she was meant to find fulfilment in serving her husband and children.

Fast forward a few decades as women entered the workforce, and in the 1990s, the concept of the ideal woman became superwoman — the woman who could dominate professionally as well as being the domestic caregiver of the 1950s. However, when I have seen my girlfriends try and reach this, I have noticed that for each woman, leaning in starts with defining what constitutes meaningful work.

I have two friends — one is a management consultant, one is an entrepreneur. The consultant hates her job — she’s bored, she hates the clients, she hates the work. She is hoping to get pregnant soon so that she doesn’t have to be a consultant any more and can focus on being a wife and mother. I have another friend who started a food product business which is doing really well, they’re stocked in Sainsbury’s and have recently turned over their first million.

For the first friend, work is like a daily death sentence for fun, so motherhood becomes her escape hatch into meaning. For the second friend, work is the meaning. Both plan to have children. But the second one will integrate her kids into a life she already loves. There is nothing wrong with having children as part of your life’s meaning, but ‘leaning in’ means respecting your desire for wanting more.

‘Leaning in’ can mean building new systems — challenging the status quo — and building a different world.

I’ve watched girlfriends take salary cuts to start their own charity, move countries to head up divisions, quit secure jobs to focus on creative projects, they are all doing different things — but as long as they are chasing what matters most to them, to me, they are leaning in.

I started off by talking about hunger. I went on to talk about how leaning in is about changing the system from within. I want to end by reminding you ladies in the audience that your hunger will be tested and you might get tired.

“Leaning in” means that when life pushes you around, you push back harder. And that even when you’re swimming against the current — you just keep swimming. Because as long as there are enough of us swimming in the same direction, I have full faith that we will turn the tide.

Adele Barlow is a writer and tech startup marketer based in London and Hong Kong. She is the founder of boutique content studio Copy & Co and the author of multiple books. Read her latest writing here.