Reflections on a Year of Leaning In

Carmen Imes

I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s book a while back, and it seemed like the kind of book that could illuminate my journey as a woman in academia. But my dissertation didn't leave much time for extra reading, so I tucked away the idea for a rainy day.

Months elapsed. Maybe a year.

Then in December 2015, after turning in a revised draft of my dissertation, I decided it was time. Lean In is not supposed to be a self-help book, but I found it tremendously helpful. It's not exactly Sandberg's autobiography either, but she opens up the windows of her life and lets us all look in. How does a woman lead well? How can she balance family and career? How can she navigate a man's world without losing her femininity? (It turns out that Evangelicals are not the only ones wondering about this!) Sandberg's big idea, the one she comes back to again and again, is that women need to lean in to the opportunities in front of them.

Yes, sometimes women are overlooked or at a disadvantage because of gender. Yet Sandberg says that we often sabotage our own success by holding back. We are hesitant to walk through an open door because we aren't sure how we'll manage everything on the other side. Women regularly turn down opportunities well before it's necessary (like when a single woman avoids a promotion because she imagines it will interfere with her future role as wife and mother). At Google and Facebook, Sandberg has observed this time and again.

There is certainly a time to say no and there are seasons of scaling back. But saying no enables us to say yes when the time is right.

That time came for me sooner than we expected. I was ready to lean in, actively praying about how God would have me invest my time and training as I neared the end of my PhD. But the spring semester was still relatively open. Aside from putting the finishing touches on my dissertation and defending it, I thought I might try to publish an article or two. Maybe paint some interior trim or catch up on the family scrapbook.

Then the phone rang.

The department chair from a local university wondered if I could possibly teach a class...immediately. One of his adjunct instructors had backed out at the last minute, leaving him with a slot to fill. School started in ten days. It sounded crazy — choose textbooks, write a syllabus, and prepare to teach a class I’ve never even taken at a university where I’ve never taught in a mere ten days?

I had just submitted my dissertation to my second reader, and we were on a tight schedule. If she found more work for me to do, I would need to revise quickly in order to defend in time to graduate. It would certainly be safer to say no, leaving my calendar open for potential revisions. But Sandberg had just told me to lean in. Besides, wasn’t this what all that training was for? So, taking a deep breath, I said yes.

That was twelve months ago.

There were revisions — fairly extensive ones. By the time I got my dissertation back, dripping with red ink, I was already a month into teaching. I had less than two weeks to cut dozens of pages and tighten my arguments. During those two weeks I didn’t use impressive PowerPoints in class, didn’t grade anything, and didn’t meet with students outside of class or attend any special events on campus. But then my defense draft was submitted, and my teaching rhythm returned to normal.

And I learned that Sheryl Sandberg was right. I had almost said no because it didn’t seem convenient or practical, because I might end up too busy. But saying yes worked out fine. My students survived, even though they weren’t the center of my universe for a couple of weeks in February. Most importantly, I finished my degree and finished out the spring semester, gaining a wealth of practical experience in the process.

I’ve had other opportunities to lean in — some initiated by others, some by me. I’ve proposed a job at my university, proposed a couple of books to publishers, and said yes to a spate of other classes in various formats (eight of them, to be exact!). The beautiful thing about working in academia is that just about everything is short-term. We have regular opportunities to reimagine our schedules and make adjustments.

This past November my department chair approached me again. Another adjunct had backed out for the spring, leaving him in a lurch. He asked me to consider taking the open class. I was already slated to teach three courses in the spring, but this new course was right in my sweet spot, and it was scheduled for a day I would already be on campus. I said yes.

I’ve learned that class prep will take as much time as I allow it. Teaching four courses this semester is giving me a taste of full-time work and keeping me focused on the essentials. Frankly, things are going really well. Like many, I’m more efficient under pressure. Whether or not this works into a tenure-track position, I’m gaining valuable experience, building a wider network, investing in students, and doing what I was born to do.

In the meantime, the interior trim still needs paint. My scrapbooks sit neglected on my dresser. The bathrooms are not always as clean as I’d like them to be.

Sandberg is right that sharing parenting responsibilities and sharing household chores are two of the key ingredients for a successful career outside the home. Truth be told, my husband does far more than half the chores around our house, and these days he’s the one managing the kids’ homework time in the afternoons and shuttling them between after-school activities. This frees me up to spend more one-on-one time with them in the evenings. But it hasn’t always been that way. We’ve taken turns, as his career and my studies have gone through alternating seasons of higher demand. We both recognize that for this season my career is more time-intensive than his. Even though my adjunct pay does not make me the “breadwinner,” we’re both committed to carving out at least fifty hours a week for me to study, teach, and write so that someday my application for a full-time position will be competitive. We’re leaning into that together.

I realize that not every woman has the luxury of this kind of support. I don’t take that for granted. I also realize that Sandberg’s book does not address the full scope of work experiences that American women have. However, I think most women in the academy and professions would find the book helpful. I certainly did.

Learning to lean in has given me greater freedom to step out in obedience to God’s call on my life. I’m so glad God used Sandberg’s story to give me the courage to say yes!

Carmen Imes holds a PhD in Biblical Theology (Old Testament) from Wheaton College. She currently teaches Bible at both George Fox University and Multnomah University. She and her husband, Danny, have served overseas as missionaries and moved at least a dozen times. Their three kids keep life full and interesting. To keep sane, Carmen blogs at carmenjoyimes.blogspot.com.

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