You can’t ‘lean in’ if you’re hanging on by a thread

June 9, 2014, 4:01 AM UTC
Young woman with head on desk
Zero Creatives—Getty Images/Cultura RF

Ten years ago, Megan Dalla-Camina worked 16 to 18 hours a day and “literally lived on a plane.” A senior executive at IBM (IBM), Dalla-Camina gave up her job handling a $50 million budget as head of marketing to figure out a lifestyle that didn’t make her feel like she was drowning. Forget the ideal of “having it all.” Despite working for a company that gave her flexibility with her schedule, the single mother was barely surviving.

Dalla-Camina had a sense that she wasn’t alone. Her new study now proves it. The Australia native polled 1,000 American working women ages 18 to 55 and the results are discouraging. Roughly 70% of women don’t believe they have the support to make themselves happy inside and outside of work and 75% don’t believe they can “have it all.” In fact, nearly half of respondents described their life in the past year as “hanging on by a thread.” What’s more is that the results hardly skewed by age or if a women had children or not, a sign that everyone is struggling to get by.

“The fact that we are having discussions about leaning in when women are saying they are barely surviving is startling,” Dalla-Camina says. “There are so many women who think that if they keep their head down and continue working hard, someone will notice and opportunities will come to them. In a lot of cases it’s just not how it works.”

Dalla-Camina’s study points to a severe gap between what working professionals need from their employers to thrive and what employers are providing. A recent Boston College study discovered that workplace flexibility is decreasing and less than one-third of employers felt they great options for employees to have alternative work models. Even if a company offers flexible work arrangements for employees, 70% of women think it’s not possible to be successful at work and home.

The problem? Too many companies are stuck in a face-to-face employee model as opposed to an outcome-based model, says Dalla-Camina. Until alternative work plans like working part time or working from home become ingrained in the DNA of corporate America — as opposed to being viewed as special treatment — nothing will change, she added.

Jody Miller, the CEO of consulting firm Business Talent Group, was hardly surprised by Dalla-Camina’s findings. Miller sees first hand the benefits of building a company that thinks about work differently. At BTG, half the employees work from home, so there is no stigma or penalty for not getting in face time with the boss; indeed, employees are rewarded for the quality of their work, not the amount of time spent on task. And the a majority of the employees are part timers and work in a project-based model. Productivity and retention have “gone through the roof” since BTG refined its unique work environment, according to Miller.

“Telling workers to ‘lean in’ is just tinkering at the margins,” said Miller. “We need fundamental structural changes in the workplace to make it manageable for all workers.”

Miller acknowledges it will likely take some time before corporate America catches up to BTG’s progressive work model. Until then, here are a couple pieces of advice from Dalla-Camina’s book Getting Real About Having It All — on how women can feel more in control at work now:

Brand yourself fabulous: Everyone has a personal brand, even though most people are usually focused on their business brand instead. Thinking seriously about how you are perceived by others forces workers to get back to the authenticity of who they really are. She suggests everyone ask themselves “How do you want to show up to work and what do you want to be known for?” If you find yourself checking your real self at the door when you get to the office, perhaps its time to find a new path.

Be clear on your non-negotiables: A self-described “reformed people pleaser,” Dalla-Camina found in her study that women are often saying yes to tasks at work that are not in their best interest. After narrowing in on your professional goals, she suggests writing down your non-negotiables and sticking to them. Whether it’s not taking calls on the weekends or asking for every Friday off, Dalla-Camina reminds readers that only you can set your boundaries at work.