The Why Behind the Work

Katelyn Beaty

The following is an excerpt from A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Katelyn Beaty. (It’s been reprinted here with permission from the publisher.) 

When people have learned I’m writing [A Woman's Place], one common response has been, “Oh, kind of like Lean In by what’s her name, Sharon Sanders?” (Okay, only one person said this.) The comparison is humbling as well as understandable given the subject matter. But in the process of writing this book, I have bristled at the comparison. Why? Because [Sheryl] Sandberg names the how of work — how to advocate for yourself and confidently lead meetings and navigate a company’s flextime and maternity leave policies — but only takes us to the far edge of the why of work. At the center of her sound and sage advice, and of the broader “superstar” messaging directed at women today, is a big gaping hole where the purpose of work, and of gender equality more broadly, should be.

I was abruptly awakened to the weakness of Lean In while leading a small group conversation in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church in southwest Seattle. To a group of about 10 women, each with a distinct line of work and life trajectory, I explained the book project by mentioning Lean In as evidence that the topic of women’s work was alive and well. One of the women in the room scoffed.

“This whole conversation about getting the corner office — I have no interest in that,” she said. “The women I work with are not thinking about any of this vocation stuff.”

Over the course of the evening, the woman told us that she counseled immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of whom had suffered sexual abuse and partner violence before coming to the United States. Now she was advocating for undocumented workers illegally detained in Tacoma, Washington. For her and the women she worked with and lived alongside, Sandberg’s manifesto seemed focused on getting the already enormously well-off and elite members of society into even higher echelons of personal fulfillment. She rightly pointed out the way that privilege — the status and power society confers upon someone because of their race, class, education — intersects with our approach to work, convincing us that our own advancement is always the highest goal.

And in reality, that’s how most of mainstream culture — not just high-level corporate culture — thinks and talks about work.

Sandberg seems to imply that if any of us follows her advice, we can enjoy as much success as she has. But that assumes a whole lot about her audience and their own place in life. She never acknowledges that to advocate for a pay raise or to “speak up” in meetings is privileged, for it assumes the protections of white-collar culture. It goes without saying the choice to hire a nanny or a chef is available to very few people. (I’ve looked into it, but it’s a bit outside my lifestyle choices right now.) The option of marrying a supportive man — also a high-achieving powerhouse in his own right, yet one who is willing to split childcare duties in half — is available to few people. Even to write a book (cough) is a choice that arises from privilege. It assumes an enormous amount of free time, support, and resources that people who are trying to simply make ends meet simply don’t have.

But even outside questions of privilege, most of us have inherited a flawed view of why we work at all. According to the mainstream secular narrative in the West, work is fundamentally about what it can give you, rather than what you can give it. And what it seemingly can give you is security — in the form of ever-growing paychecks and an ample retirement nest egg; or affirmation — in the form of outranking colleagues or growing your Twitter following or gleaning awards or invites to exclusive events; or power — in the form of shaping a corporate culture and having others know how important you are. To be sure, security, affirmation, and even power are not inherently bad. But they become bad — that is, idols — when we try to wrest them from our work, rather than resting in God’s perfect provision of all three.

And this is ultimately why Sandberg’s Lean In, and [Hanna] Rosin’s The End of Men, and even [Anne-Marie] Slaughter’s Unfinished Business scratch a real felt need among many Christian women, but really only scratch the surface. In their dream to see workplaces where 50 percent of all leadership positions are held by women, they take the dominant ways men have treated work and simply baptized them in pink. None of these thought leaders examine closely enough the underlying values of the modern workplace — in large part because they have enjoyed to some degree the wealth and status that come with mastering it. Instead of questioning the world that privileged men in the West have created — a world in which career advancement is the highest goal — we women are simply being helped to acclimate to it.

In response to this, some Christians will discourage women from pursuing any professional success. You should be content with what you have, they will say. Find ministry opportunities elsewhere. What makes you think God wants you to “have it all” anyway?

But the Christian response to all this — to the blind spots of Lean In and to the broader conversation that it epitomizes — is not to discourage women from pursuing professional work. It’s not to imbue the homestead and motherhood with a holy, saccharine aura that hardly reflects the mundane, tiring, and at times downright boring aspects of either. The response is not to push all Christians to write off the workplace to become full-time pastors or missionaries. It’s not to discourage all Christians from joining the corporate world.

The Christian response is to recover the holy, human, world-altering and self-giving purposes of work itself.


Katelyn Beaty

Katelyn Beaty is a graduate of Calvin College and was the youngest managing editor in Christianity Today’s history. She was also the first woman to serve in that role. Katelyn is the cofounder of Her.meneutics, a website covering news, cultural trends, and theology from the  perspective of Christian women. Recently, Simon & Schuster published  her book A Woman’s Place, which uses theological, historical, and cultural lenses to examine the central place work plays in every woman’s life.