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Chapter 7 Don’t Leave Before You Leave
  A FEW YEARS AGO, a young woman at Facebook came to my desk and asked if she could speak to meprivately. We headed into a conference room, where she began firing off questions about how Ibalance work and family. As the questions came faster and faster, I started to wonder about herurgency. I interrupted to ask if she had a child. She said no, but she liked to plan ahead. I inquired ifshe and her partner were considering having a child. She replied that she did not have a husband, thenadded with a little laugh, “Actually, I don’t even have a boyfriend.”

It seemed to me that she was jumping the gun—big time—but I understood why. From an early age,girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a goodmother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they willmake between professional and personal goals.

When asked to choose between marriage and career,female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates.

And thisconcern can start even younger. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, relatedthe story of a five-year-old girl who came home distraught from her after-school program and told hermother that both she and the boy she had a crush on wanted to be astronauts. When her mother askedwhy that was a problem, the little girl replied, “When we go into space together, who will watch ourkids?” At five, she thought the most challenging aspect of space travel would be dependable childcare.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a big believer in thoughtful preparation. Everywhere I go, I carry a littlenotebook with my to-do list—an actual notebook that I write in with an actual pen. (In the tech world,this is like carrying a stone tablet and chisel.) But when it comes to integrating career and family,planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them. I have seen this happen over andover. Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of smalldecisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required tohave a family. Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that theyleave before they leave.

The classic scenario unfolds like this. An ambitious and successful woman heads down achallenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind. At some point,this thought moves to the front of her mind, typically once she finds a partner. The woman considershow hard she is working and reasons that to make room for a child she will have to scale back. A lawassociate might decide not to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family. A teachermight pass on leading curriculum development for her school. A sales representative might take asmaller territory or not apply for a management role. Often without even realizing it, the woman stopsreaching for new opportunities. If any are presented to her, she is likely to decline or offer the kind ofhesitant “yes” that gets the project assigned to someone else. The problem is that even if she were toget pregnant immediately, she still has nine months before she has to care for an actual child. Andsince women usually start this mental preparation well before trying to conceive, several years oftenpass between the thought and conception, let alone birth. In the case of my Facebook questioner, itmight even be a decade.

By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her careerthan she would have been had she not leaned back. Before, she was a top performer, on par with herpeers in responsibility, opportunity, and pay. By not finding ways to stretch herself in the yearsleading up to motherhood, she has fallen behind. When she returns to the workplace after her child isborn, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated. She may wonder why she isworking for someone (usually a man) who has less experience than she does. Or she may wonder whyshe does not have the exciting new project or the corner office. At this point, she probably scales herambitions back even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top. And if she has thefinancial resources to leave her job, she is more likely to do so.

The more satisfied a person is with her position, the less likely she is to leave.

So the irony—and,to me, the tragedy—is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they didto stay in the workforce. With the best of intentions, they end up in a job that is less fulfilling and lessengaging. When they finally have a child, the choice—for those who have one—is between becominga stay-at-home mother or returning to a less-than-appealing professional situation.

Joanna Strober, co-author of Getting to 50/50, credits a compelling job for her decision to return tothe workforce after becoming a mother. “When I first started working, there were lots of scary storiesabout female executives who ignored their kids or weren’t home enough,” she told me. “Everyone inour office talked about one executive whose daughter supposedly told her that when she grew up shewanted to be a client because they got all the attention. I found these stories so depressing that I gaveup before even really starting down the partner track. However, when five years later I was in a job Ireally loved, I found myself wanting to return to work after a few weeks of maternity leave. I realizedthose executives weren’t scary at all. Like me, they loved their kids a lot. And, like me, they alsoloved their jobs.”

There are many powerful reasons to exit the workforce. Being a stay-at-home parent is a wonderful,and often necessary, choice for many people. Not every parent needs, wants, or should be expected towork outside the home. In addition, we do not control all of the factors that influence us, including thehealth of our children. Plus, many people welcome the opportunity to get out of the rat race. No oneshould pass judgment on these highly personal decisions. I fully support any man or woman whodedicates his or her life to raising the next generation. It is important and demanding and joyful work.

What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children arenot the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.

Several years ago, I approached an employee at Facebook to manage an important new project. Sheseemed flattered at first but then became noticeably hesitant. She told me that she wasn’t sure sheshould take on more responsibility. Obviously, something else was going on, so I quietly asked, “Areyou worried about taking this on because you’re considering having a child sometime soon?” A fewyears earlier, I would have been afraid to ask this question. Managers are not supposed to factorchildbearing plans into account in hiring or management decisions. Raising this topic in the workplacewould give most employment lawyers a heart attack. But after watching so many talented women passon opportunities for unspoken reasons, I started addressing this issue directly. I always give people theoption of not answering, but so far, every woman I have asked has appeared grateful for a chance todiscuss the subject. I also make it clear that I am only asking for one reason: to make sure they aren’tlimiting their options unnecessarily.

In 2009, we were recruiting Priti Choksi to join Facebook’s business development team. After weextended an offer, she came in to ask some follow-up questions about the role. She did not mentionlifestyle or hours, but she was the typical age when women have children. So as we were wrapping up,I went for it. “If you think you might not take this job because you want to have a child soon, I amhappy to talk about this.” I figured if she didn’t want to discuss it, she would just keep heading for thedoor. Instead, she turned around, sat back down, and said, “Let’s talk.” I explained that although itwas counterintuitive, right before having a child can actually be a great time to take a new job. If shefound her new role challenging and rewarding, she’d be more excited to return to it after giving birth.

If she stayed put, she might decide that her job was not worth the sacrifice. Priti accepted our offer. Bythe time she started at Facebook, she was already expecting. Eight months later, she had her baby,took four months off, and came back to a job she loved. She later told me that if I had not raised thetopic, she would have turned us down.

Like so many women, Caroline O’Connor believed that someday she’d have to choose betweencareer and family. That day came sooner than she expected. Caroline was finishing up at Stanford’sInstitute of Design when she was offered the chance to start a company at the same time that shelearned she was pregnant. Her knee-jerk reaction was to think that she could not do both. But then shedecided to question this assumption. “I began thinking of my dilemma as I would a design challenge,”

O’Connor wrote. “Rather than accepting that launching a successful start-up and having a baby areutterly incompatible, I framed it as a question and then set about using tools I’ve developed as adesigner to begin forming an answer.” O’Connor gathered data from dozens of mothers about theirexperiences and coping mechanisms. She did fieldwork on sleep deprivation by taking a night shiftwith foster infants. She concluded that with a team culture that drew support from her husband andfriends, it would be possible to proceed with both. O’Connor now refers to herself as “a career-lovingparent,” a nice alternative to “working mom.”

Given life’s variables, I would never recommend that every woman lean in regardless ofcircumstances. There have been times when I chose not to. In the summer of 2006, a tiny start-upcalled LinkedIn was looking for a new CEO, and Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn’s founder, reached out tome. I thought it was a great opportunity, and after five years in the same position at Google I wasready for a new challenge. But the timing was tricky. I was thirty-seven years old and wanted to havea second child. I told Reid the truth: regrettably, I had to pass because I didn’t think I could handleboth a pregnancy and a new job. His reaction was incredibly kind and supportive. He tried to talk meinto it, even volunteering to work full-time at the company to support me during that period, but it washard to see a path through.

For some women, pregnancy does not slow them down at all, but rather serves to focus them andprovides a firm deadline to work toward. My childhood friend Elise Scheck looks back fondly onbeing pregnant, saying she has never felt so productive. She not only worked her usual hours as anattorney but organized her house and put five years of photos into albums. For others, like me,pregnancy is very difficult, making it impossible to be as effective as normal. I tried writing e-mailswhile hovering over the toilet, but the situation didn’t lend itself to effective multitasking. Because Ihad already been through this with my first pregnancy, I knew what I was in for. I turned down Reid’soffer and got pregnant—and extremely nauseated—a few months later.

Any regrets I had about not taking that job evaporated when, about seven months after my daughterwas born, Mark offered me the opportunity to join Facebook. The timing was still not ideal. As manypeople had warned, and I quickly discovered to be true, having two children was m............
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