Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Plan Has a Big Mom Problem

Sheryl Sandberg has a plan to "revolutionize" how women move ahead in the working world. The question is: Do they want to?

It's about time we see more women at the highest levels of business and government, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg argues in her new book, Lean In.

But time is exactly what's holding many women back. The time investment required for women to move ahead in their jobs at all levels -- not just the C-suite spots -- is a deal breaker for many women who aren't willing to sacrifice those hours with their family. All of Sandberg's brilliant plans for redefining how working women are viewed and how they network hinge on the point that women need to want these jobs. And if the current formula of working longer and harder for career success doesn't change, many women won't.

Sandberg's advice will only work for the few women who "can live with the way that top jobs are structured today," as CEO Jody Greenstone Miller wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Friday. Greenstone Miller, head of the staffing company Business Talent Group, argues that work should be defined in terms of skills and organized into projects so that it can be more easily divided into small bits and assigned on the basis of availability, rather than consolidated into a few overwhelming roles.

And it seems fairly clear that those "few overwhelming roles" aren't particularly family-friendly: This weekend former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan wrote in the The New York Times that she regrets how much she prioritized work over having a life -- and how now at 47, she still hopes to have a child. Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO who reportedly built a nursery next to her office after taking a two-week maternity leave, just declared that speed and quality are affected when people work from home. And Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote in The Atlantic last year that the women who are both moms and top professions are either "superhuman, rich or self-employed." Oh, and just for kicks, Tesla Motor Company founder Elon Musk blithely commented at the recent South by Southwest conference that he (yes, he -- a Dad) runs three companies and parents five kids by constantly being on email, according to Business Insider. "Kids are awesome...I don't see mine enough actually. But what I find is I'm able to be with them and still be on email. I can be with them and still be working at the same time...If I didn't, I wouldn't be able to get my job done."

Anyone detecting a theme here? Sandberg's Lean In initiative will, with any luck, propel more women to the top. But while she's said before that the most important career choice you make is who you marry (and that she and her husband split home responsibilities 50/50), it's hard to imagine anyone -- male or female -- landing in these roles without sacrificing their whole life to it. And it isn't just the few people in these powerful roles -- at all levels women are struggling to crack the code of the work-life balance. 

Ten years ago, Lisa Belkin wrote "The Opt-Out Revolution" for The New York Times. The piece was essentially about women who finished Princeton and left the workforce to focus on motherhood. "Why don't women run the world?" Belkin asked. "Maybe it's because they don't want to."

It doesn't feel like we've moved the needle much since then. Women who have to work don't have a choice and women who want to work try to find something they feel is fulfilling but not overwhelming -- with nearly all working women struggling to keep the plates spinning as we search for the ever-elusive work-life balance.

Someone will have to show that there's merit to running a company that lets you balance work and family. That hiring more people who work fewer hours somehow makes good business sense and isn't just a benefits nightmare of added health insurance costs. And for the women who follow Sandberg's advice and make it to the top, we truly hope they can figure out an answer when they get there.

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