skip to main content
caption: Katherine Goldstein
Enlarge Icon
Katherine Goldstein

This woman stopped 'leaning in' and harnessed her anger instead

Katherine Goldstein is the host of "The Double Shift," a podcast about working moms in America.

But before she started her podcast, Goldstein was a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In."

After reading Sandberg’s book, Goldstein leaned in, hard. She started a Lean-In Circle, and she used the salary negotiation strategies in the book to get a raise. And then, when she was offered a bigger job at another company, she leaned in again and took it.

Leaning in worked really well for her, she said. Until it didn’t.

When she had a baby, everything started to fall apart. Goldstein found that workplaces really aren’t made for working moms. In fact, many of the policies — such as unpaid or severely limited family leave, inflexible work schedules, and a lack of childcare options — seemed designed to shut women out of the workforce.

Goldstein began to see the American workplace in an entirely new way. Where she had once seen boundless possibility, she now noticed barriers, roadblocks, systemic inequalities, the way that organizations were designed to help some people succeed while harming others. The American workplace isn’t just bad for working moms; it’s bad for anyone who needs to take care of a family member or tend to their own health .

Goldstein now urges people to fight, together, for a workplace that will support all kinds of people. "The most effective way to change workplaces," she said, "is to find allies within your workplace and get a bunch of women together to make real concrete proposals and policy solutions.”

“That’s very hard to do on your own. I’ve really only seen it with women coming together in community.”

This mental shift— from a doctrine of personal responsibility to community-oriented action — can be difficult, but Goldstein believes that it’s the only way to create true change.

Translating Guilt into “Motivating Anger”

One of the barriers holding women back in the workplace is guilt and a sense of personal failure — the feeling that they aren’t succeeding because they are doing something wrong or just aren’t good enough. These feelings of guilt can cause women to drop out of the workforce, and they stop people from fighting for systemic change.

Goldstein understands these feelings because she struggled with them, too, after her son was born: “My son was born with some pretty intense health problems, and he’s doing well now, but my early stage of motherhood was very much defined by anxiety and trauma. And then I lost my job shortly after I came back from maternity leave, so that completely unraveled my sense of identity.”

”I had bought into this idea that I was going to do everything right and everything was going to work out for me," she said. "It felt like all these other working moms had it all figured out and I was just a failure.”

After her experiences, Goldstein became very interested in exploring the idea of mom-guilt. So we asked her: What’s useful about guilt?

“I’m here to tell you — there’s nothing good about your guilt,” Goldstein said. “What I have found in my research is that guilt and anger operate in two different parts of the brain. So guilt is actually a withdrawal motivation, which makes people feel quiet, embarrassed. They don’t want to speak out, they want to stay out of the line of fire and keep things to themselves.”

Guilt, she said, operates in one part of the frontal cortex, but "anger, which is a different response to difficult situations, operates in a different part of the brain.” Unlike guilt, which causes us to step back and become less visible, “anger is an approach motivation, that wants to you to go towards challenges, and speak up, stand up for yourself, and actually fix things.”

So Goldstein wants us to think about “translating these feelings of guilt — that things are tough at our jobs or that we don’t have work-life balance — and identify what it is underneath that guilt that is actually making us angry. Because angry people speak up for themselves at work, they sue their employers, they go to protests, they try to get new policies in place in their workplaces or in the government.”

“So I think productive anger is the only thing that’s going to make things better for mothers,” she said. “If I can do anything in this world, I would love to give mothers permission to be angry.”

What about tactics?

We ask every guest about tactics to fight their sexist workplace. But in this case, we wondered if the very act of asking about tactics was itself a problem. Are we just perpetuating this idea that women are responsible for pulling themselves up?

Goldstein says, in some ways, yes — the idea of tactics can put too much responsibility on individual people.

Now, in her post-”Lean In” life, when women ask her for tips on how to succeed in the workplace, she refuses to give them.

“I’ve come to see it as a radical proposition to refuse to offer advice because there’s so much advice offered, especially to mothers, but to women in general, that assumes that there’s something wrong with us and that we need to be fixed in some way,” she said.

If she does have advice for women, it’s this: “come together in community to change these systems.”

And we noticed that she gave us a stealth tactic, too: if you feel guilty, find the anger at the heart of that guilt, and turn your anger into action.

We believe in collective action, too, and the power of allyship. And we definitely believe in using anger to fuel our fight against injustice and oppression.

But we also believe that, in a workplace structured by systemic bias, sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes, in this long, uphill battle of fighting sexism at work, you need tactics.

Produced for the web by Christy Scheuer.