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Do black women need lessons on ‘leaning in’?

Although Sheryl Sandberg’s book came out just weeks ago, it seems we’ve been talking “Lean In” forever. Is the manifesto about women not doing enough or trying to do too much? Will busy working women be able to spare the time to see its lessons as valuable rather than additions to already crowded to-do lists? If women feel guilty about shortchanging home or work, is that really Sandberg’s fault?

As women decide which points in her message to hold close and which ones might be wiser to disregard, black working women, as well as all women in jobs light years away from the Facebook chief operating officer’s lofty perch, are taking at least one piece of advice from Sandberg: They are speaking up.

The critics also have the right to express themselves. Are women over 50 left out of “Lean In”? a column in Salon asked. Is it just another skirmish in the continuing “mommy wars”? another in USA Today said.

On a recent radio roundtable, I joined the host and a lawyer – three black women sitting around talking – to share views on what “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” says to African American women. It’s a given that women are no more monolithic in their status or views as any other group. A Washington Post series examined how “black women carry the burden of everywoman, with the added weight of the judgment and expectations of others,” when what they really want is to be seen as individuals. (Some do fit the Sandberg profile. Investment guru Mellody Hobson, whose engagement to George Lucas made headlines, doesn’t need advice from anyone on business or marriage.)

But it also true that black women have long been in the work force, facing different and difficult obstacles. Sandberg warns that being assertive, a positive quality in a man, can be judged as “too aggressive” behavior in a women. For black women, the line between leaning in and being perceived as stereotypically pushy is awfully thin. The rewards may be less and the risks far greater.

But the three of us said some of Sandberg’s basic rules make sense for anyone at every level: look for mentors, find balance, appreciate your worth.

Sure, you can have some fun with points in her playbook. For instance, the advantages of marrying the right person — one who will be an equal partner in chores and child care and bring in a hefty paycheck to boot. Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that?

Why not, though, take what you can use in Sandberg’s story? “Don’t hate her because she’s successful,” a Time magazine cover insisted. As a Forbes column said, this isn’t a “cat fight” and women, even those who disagree, don’t hate her.

When you look at the growing percentage of women in universities and professional schools and the few leading top companies, sitting on boards and making decisions in business and government, it’s clear something doesn’t translate. Three women as successful as Condoleezza Rice, Valerie Jarrett and Lesley Stahl get together, and they still end up discussing women, power and having it all.

Sandberg knows women balancing work and home need national policy, as well as a living wage; she acknowledges the privilege that affords her help most can only dream of. As Katharine Weymouth wrote in her Washington Post column on Sandberg’s message, “You do need to be able to advance in your career to the point where you can afford child care and health insurance. Until this country offers more accessible child care, some women won’t be able to lean in very far.”

Gloria Steinem’s take of “Lean In” is that it “addresses internalized oppression, opposes the external barriers that create it, and urges women to support each other to fight both.”  Her view is that critics “are making a deep if inadvertent point: Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

When the feminist icon weighs in, it’s a reminder that the women’s movement, too, has long been accused of catering to elite circles and leaving others out. “Lean In” didn’t create the rift. It’s a conversation I’ve taken part in, reminding movement leaders of their debt to civil rights progress and occasional failure to acknowledge the added burdens working-class women and women of color face. The matter of “choice” — the ultimate goal — isn’t always theirs to make.

The institutional and internal forces confronting women who work and the choices they make resonate on a deeper level with the ones who have been leaning in for a long while.