by Gregory Clay, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Sheryl Sandberg created a national firestorm earlier this year when she said women should “Lean In” aggressively to maximize their careers. The $64,000 question, though, is how realistic is that for most women?

Not every woman is like Sandberg, who is the Harvard-educated chief operating officer for Facebook. Not many men either, for that matter. She gained $821 million from shares that vested in 2012 and received an additional $25.6 million in stock. And that’s not all. She also had a base salary: $328,000 that year with an additional $277,000 in bonus money.

Most people — women or men — can’t lean the way Sandberg leans in. And, today, clearly many women desire the option to also lean out.

Sandberg’s message could be interpreted through generational shifts. Remember the popular Virginia Slims cigarette commercial from 1968 with the sexy moniker/catch phrase that celebrated the women’s liberation movement: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The feminist movement then was one of several cultural revolutions during a game-changing decade. Is that ’60s fervor still present?

“At one time, she would have been the paragon of the feminist ideal,” said panelist Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative-libertarian, public policy organization in Washington. “Now there has been a shift in the paradigm of femininity. She’s the center of feminist frustration.”

Schaeffer was part of a spirited and intellectual panel discussion, titled “The Lean In Debate,” held in Washington at the Decatur House, a block from the White House. The panel, held before a standing-room-only, predominantly female audience of at least 300, focused on Sandberg’s red-hot, best-selling advice book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” which stokes the workplace flames by challenging women to channel their inner assertiveness.

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey called the book “honest and brave. … The new manifesto for women in the workplace.”

Said another panelist, Christine Rosen — a Bernard Schwartz Fellow with the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington: “The thing she did that got everybody riled … is when she said maybe the problem is us (women), that we’re not taking our own careers and ambitions seriously enough. I think that’s what gets everybody angry. … But I think she’s right when she talks about the ‘Tiara Syndrome’ — women sit there working, working, working really hard, and then they wait for someone to put a tiara on their head.”

Feminism a generation or so ago appeared more radical. Remember women then were involved in street demonstrations — burning bras in public, toting placards and signs, shouting pro-women chants. In the 1960s, the goals seemed unbalanced. Now, women’s issues seem more grounded, that is to say the focal points today are about more practical goals, such as equal rights, equal pay, equal representation all the while balancing family time.

And not necessarily “having it all.”

Said panelist Sally Quinn, who writes a religion blog for The Washington Post: “I think one expression that should be banished is ‘having it all.’ The point of having it all is just ridiculous. You can be married and have a great marriage. You can have children and be a wonderful mother. You can have a great job. But, you know, it doesn’t work together all the time.

“Sometimes you have to do it in segments. Sometimes you focus on your work, sometimes you focus on your child, sometimes you focus on your marriage. Sheryl doesn’t have it all because she doesn’t have the time to spend with her family.”

Does any woman truly have it all? How about all-powerful Oprah — except she doesn’t have a husband, doesn’t have any children at age 59. But she is a billionaire. Is money the begin-all and end-all for the “having it all” model in today’s culture?

Perhaps the true barometer of women’s progress isn’t solely about money but power in a broader sense.

Panel moderator Elizabeth MacDonald, a business correspondent for Fox Business Network and Fox News Channel in New York, created “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” annual feature for Forbes magazine in 2004, saying the impetus was “to find the stories about the great women out there in the world.”

Is this “Lean In” discussion different for women of color, especially black women, who historically have been in the workforce much longer than white women because of the segregation era and economic necessity affecting the black family?

Said panelist Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic magazine: “In my experience and research, black women have been dealing with these issues a lot longer than other women. I think of it as not so much women of color and women not of color. It’s about different socioeconomic classes; that’s the big divider in America right now. It’s just growing, growing and growing. What I meant by ‘End of Men’ when I wrote my book is that we live in two totally different countries.

“And in a country now where women have to work. And women not only just work, they carry their families. It’s not exclusively an African-American problem of … women working or single moms. It’s like a nationwide situation in which this discussion we are having about leaning in is totally irrelevant because nobody gets married anymore.”

Rosin, author of the book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” wrote for The Atlantic in 2010: “Over the years, researchers have proposed different theories to explain the erosion of marriage in the lower classes: the rise of welfare, or the disappearance of work and thus of marriageable men. But (sociologist Kathryn) Edin thinks the most compelling theory is that marriage has disappeared because women are setting the terms — and setting them too high for the men around them to reach. ‘I want that white-picket-fence dream,’ one woman told Edin, and the men she knew just didn’t measure up, so she had become her own one-woman mother/father/nurturer/provider.

“The whole country’s future could look much as the present does for many lower-class African-Americans: the mothers pull themselves up, but the men don’t follow. First-generation college-educated white women may join their black counterparts in a new kind of middle class, where marriage is increasingly rare. …”

If that occurs, would more women be inclined to lean in to Sandberg’s template or lean out?

Gregory Clay is assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service, 700 12th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005; email: [email protected].