THE BLOG
10/21/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg, Give 'Lean In' a Rest

Jason Koxvold via Getty Images

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg became very famous last year with her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She talks about how women should avoid leaning back from their careers when they start thinking about having children, and instead, lean into their careers and grab the brass rings they deserve.

When women lean back, she says, they cut off their opportunities for career advancement. Ms. Sandberg said she has seen this trend in young women making a series of decisions related to finding balance in their lives -- many times before they are even in a relationship or trying to get pregnant (but they plan to at some point). These decisions eventually lead to them leaving the workforce or altering their career path.

We Baby Boomers have already been down this road -- it was called Women's Liberation. Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In movement are the beneficiaries of the pioneering women who came before her -- my generation.

We know we can truly be anything we want to be -- professionals, engineers, astronauts, managers and in major C-suite leadership roles (Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Mary Marra of General Motors also come to mind). But frankly, those leadership roles -- what Sheryl Sandberg wants us to lean into -- are not necessarily all they're cracked up to be. Because here's something else: We Baby Boomers learned over the years that "having it all" is not always worth it, and plenty of people (female and male) are starting to realize it, too.

When I got my first job out of college in the early 1970s, I was hired at a major bank and almost immediately had my starting salary cut nearly in half. Why? Because my boss said I'd leave anyway to have a baby, so what was the point of paying me that much. (Can you believe it? And it was not that much to begin with). I was actually threatened when I became pregnant during my job training that the company paid for, because it was assumed that the training was a waste of their money (it wasn't, of course; I went on to a successful career in banking). I juggled work and family and the accompanying stresses. I was one of those super moms making cupcakes at 4 a.m. As a single mom I did do it all but I always felt inadequate. When the nanny called with a problem she couldn't solve, I had to come up with crazy make-dos until I could get home. Somehow we all survived but it was very tough.

Fast forward 40 years and is it really that different? In terms of corporate life, not so much.

Women know that we deserve equal treatment and pay in the workplace -- yet the gender gap in income still exists (women currently earn 82 percent of what their male counterparts make).

Not all women have the means to lean in the way Ms. Sandberg can. She's the COO with a net worth of nearly $1 billion. Her husband is the CEO of Survey Monkey. She can afford to do anything she wants. Many women don't have resources at the ready when it's time to have the baby or go back to work. Rich women can lean in any time; the rest of the female workforce has to wait until Corporate America steps up and leans in as well -- instead of passively pushing us out.

Rosa Brooks said it very well in her Washington Post blog. Sheryl Sandberg can outsource all her family's needs and has tremendous flexibility as the COO of Facebook. Most women who are trying to maintain leadership positions and raise a family are torn in too many directions, they're tired, distracted, and are falling over from basically holding two jobs (work and family). It's time, in her words, to "recline."

A study by the worldwide accounting firm Grant Thornton found the proportion of women in the most senior roles globally is 24 percent and 23 percent in North America -- about the same as it was before the Great Recession (you'll be amazed at the high figures from some countries so check it out). Only 12 percent of companies around the world have female CEOs. The study's creators suggest that "women's ascent up the corporate ladder has returned to its 'natural level' following the financial crisis ...." So either the glass ceiling has yet to be shattered, or many women are just opting to take a less demanding role. For many, the lifestyle ROI isn't there. Let's look at a few factors that keep women from leaning in (if that's what they in fact even want).

It's time for employers to lean in and step up

Corporate America and our government simply don't support leaning in. The U.S. has no mandated paid family leave (only 12 weeks of unpaid leave) and only a small percentage of workers get paid leave as an employee benefit through work. Most companies don't offer onsite childcare or daycare vouchers. Without paid benefits to enjoy the early months of motherhood without financial worries, or other support for working families, it's no wonder many women opt out of their careers temporarily (which often results in derailment) or take a different route in order to be able to work and raise a family at the same time.

Climbing up the corporate ladder today means being connected to the office all the time, married to your work, which leaves precious little time for quality family time. Some mothers (and fathers) might not want to deal with extremely long work hours, then rush home to catch a quick bedtime story with the kids before collapsing. They leave the house before anyone is up, miss soccer games or ballet recitals because of their commitment to work and what it takes to rise to the top. They basically come home to a second job if they don't have full-time help. It's no wonder more women aren't leaning in - and even if they do, then what?

Not everyone has a spouse who supports and understands being married to your work and for some, all the money in the world isn't necessarily worth the stresses and strains that corporate climb can put on individuals and families. Honestly, how many women really want to juggle client meetings, white papers, and presentations with ordering little Sally's custom birthday cake while figuring out how to get to that parent-teacher conference? It's just too exhausting.

Gender roles are changing and the stay-at-home dad trend is growing, but how many men volunteer to change their work life in order to manage the household and schlep the kids to their activities? (And ladies, admit it--how many of you really trust guys to get the job done right?) Women still take all that on instead of relegating those duties to their husbands. And the expense of hiring nannies or housekeepers or paying for daycare cuts into the earnings of many middle-class women. Obviously, the more you make, the more you can afford these services--but then you struggle with worrying about whether your children have had enough mommy/ daddy time, or that the caregivers are not doing a good job, or something happened at daycare and you have to run home to deal with the emergency.

For middle-class working women, they may worry that a significant portion of their paycheck is going to cover these expenses so rather than lean into and own their careers they opt to stay at home for a few years instead if they can afford to do it.

The bottom line? As long as women are the ones having the babies and are more likely to be the ones managing the household as well, they will be the ones dealing with the balancing act between career ambitions and family needs/obligations. Unless there are men who support a structure of real change, corporate rules that support work-life balance and legislation that creates paid family leave, many women will be left struggling with difficult choices rather than rise up the ladder. And until Corporate America catches up with our aspirations and our needs, I think more women will put their human and financial resources elsewhere . . . and choose to lean less.