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Is the Lean-In Conversation Going to Leave Out Single Women?

I can’t seem to turn on the television, open a magazine or a newspaper, or peruse a blog without finding a discussion of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead.

In the New York Times, Anne-Marie Slaughter (who whipped up plenty of controversy herself by arguing in an Atlantic cover story that women can’t have it all) described Sandberg’s message to women as:

“…believe in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave” — which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby.”

I don’t have a copy of the book yet so what I am writing is not a review of the book. It is, instead, a cautionary tale about the discussion that the book has provoked, and who seems to be left out of that discussion, still again.

The topic is women in the workplace, and why there are not more of them at the highest levels. In the Washington Post, Connie Shultz notes:

“The problem, in Sandberg’s view: Women make incremental decisions based on future plans for a family, which chips away at their career options.”

From just the two quotes I’ve mentioned so far, you can probably see a theme emerging already: An important obstacle to women’s success in the workplace is their concern with children and family. You probably could have anticipated as much even without reading the book or the reviews.

Managing work and family, we are told, is more readily accomplished if your spouse does his share of the child care and housework. Connie Shultz takes Sandberg to task for assuming that the “supportive spouse…is almost always male.” She also notes that “Sandberg barely mentions the millions of single mothers in the workplace.”

By raising the issue of single mothers, Shultz has at least broadened the discussion to include some single people. Single women with no kids, and no plans to have kids or a husband, do not seem to be getting much attention by Shultz or anyone else.

We have seen this exclusion before. For example, when women for the first time comprised half of the workforce, Maria Shriver marked the occasion with a 454-page document called The Shriver Report. The first sentence proclaimed, “This report describes how a woman’s nation changes everything about how we live and work today.” Yet, Shriver’s “Woman’s Nation” was actually a wife and mother’s nation, and the report served up compulsory marriage and mothering.

Single women – with and without kids – have special challenges in their work lives that most married women do not. They have no spousal salary as a back-up plan. In some ways, they need greater opportunities and protections, but they get fewer. If, for example, a married woman becomes ill and her spouse has a job covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, that spouse can take time off under the Act to care for her. No peer in the life of a single woman (such as a close friend or a sibling) can take time to care for her.

Lean in, Janet Maslin explains, actually means this: “Stand up. Step forward. Speak out. Be smart and strong, and don’t torpedo your own efforts in the workplace.” There is plenty of acknowledgment, in the reviews of Lean In and apparently in the book as well, of the risks to women of being assertive in the workplace.

What I would like to see is a recognition of the special risks to women who are single. If their colleagues are unwilling to accept their assertiveness, what those single women will lose is not a place in the boardroom but a way to buy food and shelter and pay their bills.

Is the Lean-In Conversation Going to Leave Out Single Women?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2013). Is the Lean-In Conversation Going to Leave Out Single Women?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Mar 2013
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