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Opinion Is leaning in the answer? Michelle Obama begs to disagree

Ask any successful woman whether she thinks she’s figured out how to have it all – the happy family, the great career, the supportive and devoted husband – and she’ll laugh hysterically. Sure, she may look as if she has it all together. But beneath the surface she’s a deranged duck, paddling furiously.

If you too are paddling (and who isn’t?), Michelle Obama has some words of consolation. “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’ – nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie,” she said last weekend on a tour to promote her new book, Becoming. “It’s not always enough to lean in because that shit doesn’t work all the time.”

The audience greeted her remarks with rapturous applause. A former first lady used an earthy word to express a down-home truth. Now that’s keeping it real.

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In fact, not even Michelle Obama can have it all. During her time in the White House, she was often visibly frustrated by the constraints of her role. Sometimes she looked as if it hurt her face to smile so much.

Michelle Obama speaks with Tracee Ellis Ross at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Nov. 16, 2018.

EMILY BERL/The New York Times

That infamous advice to “lean in” came from Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, now under heavy fire for her company’s recent misdeeds involving Russia and privacy. In 2013, she published a book, Lean In, advising women to be more assertive to get what they want at work, whether it’s a raise, a promotion, or better working hours to give them more time with the kids. The book was a bestseller, and inspired "Lean In” circles across the U.S.

From the start, Lean In was widely ridiculed. New York Times opinionizer Maureen Dowd called Ms. Sandberg a “pompom girl for feminism.” She was harshly criticized for being too elitist, for ignoring ordinary working women and women of colour, and for being too credulous about the power of individual women to make a meaningful difference to women’s status in the workplace. As Washington Post reviewer Connie Schultz wrote, her advice “sounds like a prescription for how to lean in until you collapse from exhaustion.” The criticism smacked of a common note in feminism, where highly successful women in corporate life are often suspected of selling out.

In fact, the book is a mostly clear-eyed description of reality. “Having it all. Perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of this phrase,” Ms. Sandberg writes. “Instead of perfect, we should aim for sustainable and fulfilling.” That sounds reasonable to me.

What doesn’t sound reasonable is Ms. Sandberg’s definition of “success” as a 50-50 gender split in all aspects of life – in the C-suite, in the boardroom and in the housework. That should be the goal, she maintains, of women’s drive for equality. The problem is that it’s based on the premise that men and women are identical in their preferences, aspirations and aptitudes, and that any differences between the sexes are solely due to nurture and therefore artificial.

But that’s wrong. It’s no accident that kindergarten teachers tend to be female and construction workers tend to be male. There are reasons why more men than women are willing to work 17-hour days to climb the greasy pole, and not all of them are socially constructed. Some women actually prefer to stay home full time with their children. Yet despite decades of proselytization, hardly any men do.

No one will deny that women in the work force face more obstacles than men. But men’s and women’s different preferences and desires make a difference, too. The goal of equality between the sexes shouldn’t have to be equal outcomes. The goal should be to maximize human flourishing – so that that all of us have a chance to shape our lives as we see fit.

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Although things are far from perfect, working women today have never had it better. The pay gap is narrowing, and, despite #MeToo, workplaces are far less sexist than they were three decades ago. Women are in demand for C-suite jobs and boards of directors, where there are still many times more men than women.

Yet, the truth is that hardly any of us can ever have it all. There are always trade-offs, and sometimes they are trade-offs that men don’t need to make. That’s what Michelle Obama discovered when she went to live in the White House. She became a smiling captive in a fancy house. Now, Sheryl Sandberg is paying the price for being COO of a popular monopoly that everybody loves to hate. Will anybody fire Mark Zuckerberg if things get too hot? Nope. They’ll probably fire her. As Michelle says, leaning in doesn’t always work.

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