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♥ & $: Sometimes It’s About More Than Money — My Take On the Sheryl Sandberg Debate

In 1996, I was invited to speak to an MBA class at my alma mater, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. They wanted to hear about my career as a marketing executive. I wanted to tell them about how hard it was to juggle two children and that seemingly successful career. After 45 minutes detailing the myriad of challenges I faced, one student politely raised her hand and said, “I really just want to know about the work you did in marketing. Can we focus on that?” My answer to her then is the same as now: “If you don’t figure out the personal, you’ll never figure out the professional.”

Which bring me to this column. Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks, you can’t have missed the hullaballoo stirred up by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg. Boy is she getting a drubbing. Her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has been called elitist, simplistic, and heteronormative (read Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz piece in the Washington Post to get a great review).

Sandberg’s argument, that women sabotage their own careers by not having enough ambition, is giving fuel to the already blazing firestorm about work and balance and why there aren’t more women at the top. As a woman who left her successful business career to focus on her family, a woman who one might accuse of having gone “off-track,” I say, “Thank you Sheryl.” Here’s why…

After getting my MBA, I worked my way into a vice presidency at an advertising agency. I already had one child and was soon pregnant with a second. When my daughter was born, I quit. It wasn’t the fifty hour (+) work weeks, the never-ending client demands, the two-hour-a-day commute, or the fact that I rarely saw my children that drove me to resign from my high paying job. It was the fact that I just didn’t like the work and I really didn’t like the office politics.

Instead I chose to start my own marketing consulting practice. This enabled me to work with clients I chose on challenges I found interesting. That I had no commute, was able to take time out of my day to have lunch with my children, and actually made as much money as I did in my previous job, only helped validate my choice.

Jumping off the corporate ladder opened unexpected doors for me. I was able to rethink what it was that brought me fulfillment. As a result, I went on to become a social entrepreneur starting and running a non-profit dedicated to helping teachers and parents bring out the best in boys. Over time, I realized I loved writing and eventually went back to graduate school to get an MFA. I have since launched myself in to a third career as an award-winning writer and independent journalist.

All of this and yet under Sandberg’s rubric (the idea that “fast-track” women are not at the top because they don’t lean in), I failed. Under my personal rubric, I’ve succeeded and then some.

But here’s the rub…I was only able to do this because I had my own infrastructure of support. Thanks to my parents, I was able to graduate from college with no loans. This meant as I worked, I was able to save money. I got married and together my husband and I were eventually able to buy a house. And today, I have health insurance and financial security because my husband has a good job with a reliable salary. I was able to take professional risks because I had back up. Most women do not.

We need to have a real conversation about the challenges of balancing work and family. We need it because the current demands placed on employees in this country coupled with the concurrent lack of systems and infrastructure to meet the demands of our home life is causing us to get sick, break down, and/or give up. Sandberg focuses on the last of those three issues. I say let’s focus on them all.

Let’s get affordable day care and let’s provide quality preschool for all children. Let’s get paid family leave in every state of this country, not just three (California, New Jersey, and Washington). Let’s make sure if you  get sick, you don’t lose your job. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get a few paid sick days? Especially useful if you have children in that petri dish called school.

Lastly, imagine if there were protections against bias in the workplace for mothers and fathers. We’ve all read about the limits mothering imposes on a woman’s career, but I know plenty of men who’d like to spend more time with their children and don’t for fear of being perceived as less ambitious. In fact, a just released report from the Pew Research Center says both women and men are eager for more time with their children and for the first time “a nearly equal share of mothers and fathers say they wish they could be at home raising their children rather than working.” Now that is new news.

When we have solved the problems of the lack of systemic support for working parents, let’s focus on the very notion that success is defined by one’s career. Let’s expand what success means to include having deep meaningful connections to family, friends, and one’s extended community. No doubt being at the top of one’s profession is a great goal, but wouldn’t it be great if volunteerism and giving back was part of the formula for success? Can you imagine how much healthier our children (and society) would be if raising them was consider as important as running a Fortune 500 company?

Sandberg may claim I didn’t lean in to my career, but I am proud to say I leaned in to my life. I wish all women and men had the infrastructure necessary to make the decisions that are right for them and their families. If women’s lives and choices are put under the microscope in order to shed light on these issues, I believe it’s worth the debate.

What does this mean for your personal financial decisions? Sometimes the personal is political and we need to raise our heads above our pocketbooks, bank statements, and investment portfolios to consider what is happening in society at large. When we do, we come to realize we are not alone and that, collectively, we can and must work together to make change. That change will benefit you, trust me.

If you don’t want to spend the money to buy Sandberg’s book, you can watch her TED talk. It’s a great summary.

If you want to learn more about how you can get involved to make change for working women and men, check out They can will help you understand some of the very real issues facing us in the workplace today.

You might resonate with this great piece on the “shift” generation that recently ran on Women Online. The author writes:

Young men and women are in the middle of a huge shift in gender roles. Mine is not the first generation in which women work and make meaningful contributions in the workplace. But I do believe today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings are the first in which a woman staying home is an aberration, not viewed as a normal option.

Finally, I’ve written on the issue of women and ambition for other media outlets. You can read my latest article entitled, We Are Women. Hear Us Roar. Again. here:

What does this debate mean for you? Are you leaning in? If you have or plan to have children, what’s your solution to all of this? 

Published or updated on March 19, 2013

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About Lisen Stromberg

Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog, follow her @LisenStromberg or become her friend. Email her at lisen (at) prismwork. com with your ♥ & $ questions and concerns.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Lisen, you mentioned that you believe that “under Sandberg’s rubric … I failed.” Well, under MY rubric, you succeeded. Developing a successful marketing consulting firm is a TOUGH job. The American Dream, as I interpret it, is to be a successful entrepreneur, and you did exactly that while simultaneously balancing a family and personal life. Don’t underplay the effort or success associated with that career, just because it allowed you flexibility within your schedule. Entrepreneurship is hard, and those who can make a healthy living at it — as you did — are, in my view, people who have advanced within their careers.

  2. Amanda says:

    Great article Lisen! Finally someone addresses the bigger issues triggered by this debate.

  3. chelsea lewis says:

    Great piece!

    I always enjoy hearing other women talk about their work / life balance. As I am just beginning my career and will eventually get married and have children, it is awesome to come across great advice for just attempting to juggle all of these at the same time. I don’t believe it’s possible to do all these things perfectly, but just being aware of it and talking about it in the open helps.

  4. Matt Becker says:

    This is a great piece. I think the most important takeaway is that your career, financial and family decisions need to be based in an understanding of the things your truly value in life. For Sheryl Sandberg, it sounds like she values her career above all else. Good for her. But that’s not for everyone. For Lisen, as for many men and women, spending quality time with family is a top priority, and that might mean some career sacrifices.

    It’s important for all of us to understand that money is merely a tool. It is not an end. Money gives us freedom to pursue the things that truly matter to us. Those things will be different for each person, and that’s ok. But if you’re pursuing something without an understanding of the goal (whether it’s a career, cutting spending, getting married, whatever), then you’ve missed the point.

    Know what you love and what you truly want from life. Design your path from there and let the money/career decisions follow.

  5. K. says:

    Sandberg is aberrantly focused and ambitious. My issue with her argument is that she’s essentially telling young women to work harder, which for most (as you point out) is likely unsustainable. There’s no point leaning in if you don’t find significant fulfillment in your job.

    My plan is to find a house husband :)
    More seriously, I realize I can’t “plan” everything, and I’m open to the possibilities life will present me. Which sounds very close to the path your career has taken, and which I think has become the modern norm.

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