'Lean in'

Good advice, but don't deny the pushback

For years, feminist mothers have been telling all their children that they can be whatever they dream of being, if only they work hard enough.

That's not strictly true; pope is still off limits for their daughters, and for those who dream big - say, who want to be president of the United States - there's still a big bottleneck at the top. Statistically, a woman still is less likely to become CEO of a big corporation, president of a large university, or pastor of a tall-steeple church. That some women have been able to break through the glass ceiling hardly disproves its existence.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has written a book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." In it, Sandberg acknowledges two important points: Women often face challenges that men do not, and they sometimes make life choices that do not mesh with a skyrocketing career.

Neither of those points is controversial, but "Lean In" book is. Most of the criticism centers on whether Sandberg is in a position to understand the lives of most women. She has two degrees from Harvard - a bottleneck of its own - and a resume that includes a stint at Google. Facebook is a company that made many right moves, not including its IPO, but it was also in the right place at the right time and had a prodigious amount of good luck. (Remember MySpace?) That element serves to separate many wildly successful people from others who work hard all their lives and make good choices. In very few companies and industries does the average rank-and-file employee have any influence over the corporate decisions on which their jobs depend.

A Huffington Post commentary amusingly said, "Some have criticized Sandberg's approach, saying it only considers the needs of upper middle-class working women." A woman whose net worth is $1.6 billion - yes, that's a "b" - cannot be considered middle class by any metric.

Sandberg generally does a good job discussing gender inequity in large companies in her industry. Not everyone can work in the tech industry, though - not even everyone who lives in the Silicon Valley - and besides the service and retail workers frequently cited as necessary, essential occupations include teachers, public-safety workers, health-care personnel and so on, plus farther-flung energy and manufacturing jobs. Few of those people ever will have stock options. Gender is just one variable that influences outcome - only a minute percentage of men succeed as Sandberg has - but it's one that affects half the population.

Sandberg is right in recommending that women continuously and consistently lean in toward their goals. Their own actions, though, cannot eliminate income equality because so many external factors hold it firmly in place. Few people would say that they value their children's teachers less than they value their Facebook access, and yet teach workers earn far more than teachers. Few people would say, at least aloud, that men are more valuable employees than are women, and yet on average, in statistics adjusted for all other variables, women still earn less.

Women should cheer Sheryl Sandberg, but they should also state, clearly, that their leaning in is just one force, too often countered by pushback and stasis. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is right: America is unprepared to welcome women as a full part of our society.

That needs to change at every level, not just in the ozone around the glass ceiling.