Friday, March 1, 2024

Leaning Out? Why Women Are Saying ‘No’ to Hustle Culture

Does anyone else feel like they should be doing more – hustling, if you like – to get ahead in the workplace?  We talk to some women who are choosing to ‘lean out’ rather than ‘lean in’.

Kelly*, who works in finance in Wellington, rejects a ‘hustle culture’ where you’re pushing yourself (sometimes more than is good for you) to show you’re a go-getter in the workplace and to climb an hierarchical ladder.

“At a recent performance and development meeting with my manager,” Kelly says, “I told her I had no ambition other than to do my work well enough to not be fired or let the team down, and that I wasn’t aiming for promotion etcetera. She got very flummoxed and asked why. I explained that I had to work to pay the bills, but my life and the things that I value [most] all exist outside of work: my kids, my friends, my art, my health.”

‘My theory is if I can go to work and do an absolutely fine job, there’s nothing wrong with that.’

“My theory is if I can go to work and do an absolutely fine job, there’s nothing wrong with that – and actually what followed was a reassuring and interesting conversation about how my manager had turned down a higher-up governance role because she felt similarly.”

“Our worth ought not to be defined by constantly ‘levelling up’ at work if that’s not what we want. I reckon that’s one of the toxic things we’ve picked up from second-wave feminism and, more recently, the ‘girl boss’ movement. Anyhow, I love to have a job that I can check into, and out of.”

Unlike Sheryl Sandberg. The chief operating officer at Facebook repurposed the term ‘lean in’ in her bestselling 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work And The Will to Lead. It encourages women to “lean in” to their ambitions in the workplace by asserting themselves, creating opportunities, and climbing the corporate ladder.

But come 2022, as we continue adjusting to Covid, many of us have realised that family and health are far more important than a job – and realised they’re not that keen on more tasks, extra hours or hustling to get ahead at the office (indeed, many people are still working from home in their PJs).

‘Rather than supporting the hustle culture, I’ve always been in favour of a break culture…’

In April 2022, Artis Rozentals, the CEO of DeskTime (a time-tracking and productivity app) wrote an article for Forbes called “The Hustle Culture Has No Future: Enter The Break Culture”. As Rozentals writes, “Hustle culture puts work at the centre of life. Long working hours are praised and glorified. Time off is seen as laziness. If you are not hustling, you are failing.”

But, he says, this can see employees grow resentful and burn out. “Rather than supporting the hustle culture, I’ve always been in favour of a break culture: one that promotes regular work breaks and work-life balance.”

Rather than “leaning in”, perhaps more of us can “lean out”, at least sometimes. “‘Lean out’ doesn’t mean quit your job or check out mentally,” writes Marissa Orr in her book Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace. “It means leaning out of anyone else’s story of who you should be and what a successful career looks like.”

The single mother-of-three writes about trying to succeed in her 15-year career in the world’s top tech companies. One thing she addresses is the problematic way that most career-advice books that are targeted to professional women suggest they change their behaviour at work to behave more like men.

What might an alternative ‘work-scape’ look like? What might it mean if employers, not women, need to rethink their (often subconsciously) patriarchal norms, values and expectations to take into account what women need and value?

It might mean reimagining an approach that sometimes sees men considered more hard-working because they put in more ‘visible hours’ (staying later at work) while women working flexible hours (who might go do school pick-up but make up time in the evenings) are seen as slacking off.

It might mean attaching less importance to the ‘old boys network’ of drinks after work, trying to impress colleagues and clients. It might mean you’re not contactable by phone or email after 5.30pm, or in the weekends, unless it’s very important.

‘It can feel like our performance system only treats ‘exceeds expectations’ as worthy of a pay rise.’

Jacqueline McGowan, a service designer in the Waikato, says our wider workplace culture comes with the expectations that you’ll ‘lean in’ considerably. “It doesn’t help that as soon as you’re competent or excelling in a role, there’s an expectation you’ll want to take on more, and at the whiff of interest or capacity, more is piled on you.”

I said for several years, after having my child, to my manager that I didn’t want any additional ‘stretch’ but I felt that was at odds with work culture. My manager accepted that, but the wider system is designed to push you up. Every three months there are review questions that imply you should be progressing, and it can feel like our performance system only treats ‘exceeds expectations’ as worthy of a pay rise.”

Cece, from Christchurch, has been in her job for a year. “I don’t love my job in comms as it’s essentially marketing for IT, neither of which are fields I’m particularly interested in. But I do like my company, have no immediate ambitions to change jobs, and don’t even have particular goals for this job. For now, I’m satisfied doing the job as it is.”

Sally* says many people in the public service reject hustle culture. “Many of us are content to take home a fair salary in return for doing a job that helps keep national systems and infrastructure rolling, or does some public good in our own niche areas – and we find satisfaction in that. We don’t see a need to ‘climb the greasy pole’. Sometimes people from the private sector see that lack of ambition as laziness or inertia, and some people like me don’t like to talk about their contentment.”

Claudia Reuter, a tech entrepreneur featured on the website LeanIn.Org (a non-profit organization founded by Sheryl Sandberg), authored the book Yes, You Can Do This! How Women Start Up, Scale Up, and Build the Life They Want.”

While Reuter seems like the ultimate ‘lean-in-er’, she doesn’t accept that you have to choose between leaning out and leaning in. In an article for online-and-print publication Fast Company, she writes “By pushing a narrative into the mainstream media on ‘leaning in’ versus ‘leaning out,’ women are inadvertently being led to argue about which side they are on, as if those are actually the [only] choices.”

“I don’t think that’s what Sheryl Sandberg meant to say when she wrote Lean In,” Reuter writes, “and I don’t think that was an argument Michelle Obama was trying to have when she said leaning in didn’t work all the time.”

“Rather, I think Sandberg was making a call for women to lean in to their leadership abilities and Obama was articulating that paths are not always linear. But the conversation held in the media made it seem like they were completely at odds with each other.” Perhaps we can sometimes lean in – and at other times lean out – depending on what works best for us.

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