When Leaning In Isn't Enough

Your Take: Sheryl Sandberg's advice to middle-class women is a bit unrealistic for today's world.

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(Special to The Root) -- It seems like a lot of women -- women with the time for these things -- are talking about Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" project. It's a book, a website, some kind of social network and, for all I know, probably an upcoming movie. But color me underwhelmed.

Don't know what I'm talking about? Sandberg is the No. 2 executive at Facebook, and, according to media accounts, a billionaire as a result. Her book is a best-seller. The excellent Anne Applebaum in the New York Review of Books distills Sandberg's thesis to this: "[W]omen must overcome internal and external barriers, welcome challenges, not back away, not assume they won't be able to do something because they are pregnant or might be pregnant or won't be able to cope."

Applebaum says it's motivational dialect, which works in real life for working women with children who have 1.) a nanny, 2.) a job that lets you get home at a decent hour every evening and 3.) a supportive partner. Some of us are lucky enough to have one of those things; a few of us have two. But when you start to think about women who have all three, it's a very short list in the real world.

Sandberg doesn't want women to back away from aggressively pursuing career paths that take them into the top levels of the corporate suite -- and the equivalent in other tracks of professional life -- because of perceived conflicts with family responsibilities. She wants us to have it all -- as she appears to have done for herself.

Here's the problem: Sandberg offers no life plan. No insight. No real advice, even for middle-class and upper-middle-class white women. Just words of inspiration. Then you begin to think about how hard it really is to "lean in" when you don't have paid parental leave, when your job demands that you work irregular hours, when quality child care costs more than rent. After that meditation, Sandberg leaves me more depressed than inspired.

If Sandberg wanted to do something really productive for women -- and men -- she'd use some of her Facebook fortune to advocate for government-funded, early-childhood education. And not just the pre-kindergarten funding -- for all 4-year-olds -- for which my husband, New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, is fighting, which is apparently too much for even some of his fellow Democrats. The platform that Sandberg has to reach and influence people could be enormously powerful in getting us to take a more realistic approach to caring for our nation's children.  

I don't mean to rag on Sandberg without giving her any credit. She is a role model for many women. She doesn't claim to have all the answers; she says she is just starting a conversation. I commend her for writing, but the challenges she describes are all too real and demand more than individual solutions. 

Applebaum describes Lean In, in essence, as the first truly successful, best-selling "how to succeed in business" motivational book explicitly designed and marketed to women. But she says don't read it if you want to learn how to change the world. I hope women and their families are inspired to fight -- to join together and demand high quality child care, good afterschool programs and paid sick days for everyone.  

Without that kind of movement, Sandberg is only talking about opportunity for a narrow class of very privileged families not complicated by race/ethnicity or sexual orientation. God bless them, but it's the other 99 percent that need help. Lean in to that, girl!

Chirlane McCray is a writer and loving partner to New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. She is the mother of two teenagers and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter.