One recent poll says more than 70 percent of women want to change their career. Clearly, something about traditional careers isn't working for half the human race. What should be done about it? 

That's a massive question beyond the scope of any one book, let alone a single column, but plenty of brave commentators have ventured broad outlines of an answer. Sheryl Sandberg famously suggested the issue is largely about how women are socialized and supported in pursuing traditional careers, and she advises them to "lean in." 

But there's a group of equally smart and accomplished women who are not totally 
convinced by Sandberg's argument (including, notably, former First Lady Michelle Obama). These experts insist the entire traditional career system is rigged against women and say no amount of body language tweaks or self-empowerment is going to make it a smart investment of your one precious life. 

Instead, they suggest, ambitious women should build their own career paths as entrepreneurs or freelancers. Call it the battle between "lean in" and "drop out." 

Don't waste your time playing a rigged game. 

VC Allison Baum is the poster child for the anti-Sandberg, "drop out and do your own thing" camp. Early in her career, Baum tried climbing the ladder at Goldman Sachs and looked to Sandberg for advice on how to get ahead in her male-dominated industry. 

Eventually though, she came to realize that "even if I had followed Sheryl's playbook perfectly, corporate culture as we know it was simply not built with women in mind," Baum told Quartz's Alexandra Ossola earlier this year. 

"In fact, it's not just corporations. All of the systems that define our society--our government, our jobs, capitalism as a whole--were all built by white men and, therefore, are naturally suited for the success of other white men."

Instead of trying to elbow her way up the existing system, Baum quit, first to work at a startup, then leaving to found her own VC firm, Fresco Capital. She's now at Trinity Ventures. Clearly, this trajectory won't work for every woman in every situation. Baul is privileged, but she feels many more women should consider giving up the rigged game and starting something of their own. 

"It's really important to look at a system and a game and say, 'Can I win this?' If you can't win it, if you can't influence how someone thinks or how a system works, then it's much better to leave and play a game you can win," she says. 

She's not alone in this assessment. Former Google and Facebook employee Marissa Orr wrote a whole, aptly titled book arguing this case. It's called, you guessed it, Lean Out. "The future of women at work will come from the trend of female entrepreneurs, as they leave the corporate world in larger numbers and create their own enterprises," she told Forbes. "Women need to define success on their own terms."

Why now is a great time for women to make the leap. 

Now is a particularly great time for women to try to build their own thing. Before "we had these traditional gatekeepers, like a Harvey Weinstein, or VCs in the Valley, that got away with bad behavior for so long, who were controlling information and relationships and capital. Now all that is breaking down, so the opportunity cost of doing something new is so much lower," she insists. The strong economy clearly won't hurt women's chances either. 

"This is an awesome moment for women," she concludes. "Now is the time to lean out. Now is the time to vote with our feet."

Which, Orr claims, is possible even if you're not currently in a position to strike out completely on your own. In her Forbes interview she outlined a few steps to start leaning out even while you're an employee: 

  1. "Define success around well-being instead of winning. Well-being can be thought of as the sense that your life is under your own control, that you're choosing your goals consciously, and that those goals reflect your authentic self." 

  2. "Understand your own character. The greater your self-awareness, the greater your ability to know what you need and want from your career." Super successful people agree with her. 

  3. "Learn the limitations of your current organization. Accept that many institutions are not equipped to meet your deepest needs. Figure out how to fulfill them on your own."

  4. "Choose which stories to believe. Lean out doesn't mean quit your job, reduce your ambition, or lower your standards. It means leaning out of anyone else's story of who you should be, what your career looks like, or how you measure success." 

So, go ahead and give yourself permission to give up on leaning in. Instead, drop out of other people's narratives of what success looks like, and consider starting your own thing. So many incredible women are already doing it.

Published on: Sep 24, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.