Diversity and Inclusion

What Lean In Means for Women of Color

Sheryl Sandberg’s self-described feminist manifesto is provoking thought, challenging paradigms and causing women everywhere to ask, “what does this mean for me?” I was no exception. As an MBA educated black woman, I couldn’t help but finish the book and wonder, “what exactly does Lean In mean for women of color?”

Sandberg briefly touches on the added complexity that race lends to the challenge of taking our seat at the proverbial table, but not so much that there hasn’t been incessant chatter amongst my black, Hispanic, Asian and East Indian girlfriends about what this means for us. We live in a world where discrimination is not always overt, nor is it always intentionally malicious. It’s nuanced and often difficult to read. As such, there remain real, albeit subtle, challenges for women of color, specifically: 1) subconsciously opting out; 2) gaining access to informal networks and visibility to executive management; and 3) developing an authentic voice.

“Don’t Leave Before you Leave”

It is true that as women we often talk ourselves out of certain opportunities before they are even presented to us. In Lean In, Sandberg speaks to this concept largely as it relates to women preemptively closing professional doors in [far too advanced] preparation for integrating career and family. In an effort to brace ourselves to have it all, we instead hold ourselves back, making sacrifices we think are necessary to successfully maintain the ‘ideal’ husband/children/career balance.

For women of color, we also opt out in other ways. As underrepresented minorities in many scenarios (I’ve had several jobs where I was the only woman or the only black person on the team), we feel underrepresented, so we behave as such. We sometimes tell ourselves that because we’re black/Hispanic/Asian/East Indian, we aren’t welcome in particular professional settings. In turn, we act like we don’t belong. Sandberg identifies this behavior as Stereotype Threat: when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, they are more likely to perform according to that stereotype.

Whether we see leadership in our likeness or not, we must remind ourselves that we’re there because we belong. You may be the only woman of color on your team, but you might also be the only person from your business school. You were hired because you are intelligent, capable and are in a position to add value. As Sandberg would advise, “take your seat at the table,” and if necessary, fake it until you make it.

Gaining Access & Visibility

Much of the criticism of Sandberg’s book is that she is too privileged and thus, too far removed from the issues of “normal” women to effectively coach them. That it’s easy to tell someone to lean in when you’re a double Harvard degreed, ex-Googler millionaire who now leads operations for the largest, most powerful social media company in the world. And to some extent, I get it. Yet what these particular critics fail to get is that Sheryl Sandberg didn’t write this book for all women. Like it or not, she wrote it for the women who already have the skills, the resumes and the network to lean on as they’re leaning in.

Shari Hubert, Associate Dean of Admissions at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and Harvard Business School alum, says, “I believe that women of color often have an even higher hurdle to overcome in the workplace and are more invisible than their white counterparts. The challenges for women of color are more subtle, however, and not always overtly discriminatory, which makes it more difficult to both identify and overcome them.”

As women of color, we often feel the need to prove our intellect and capability, thus focusing putting a disproportionate amount of focus on performance forgetting that image and exposure are equally important. Hubert adds, “It is even more important for women of color to find their voice, and secure early wins in terms of their performance, which will hopefully lead to securing a sponsor and greater success. Because of the invisibility factor, sponsorship is even more important for women of color.”

This often means participating in social activities outside of the office that result in gaining access to the informal networks within your company. Women of color tend to befriend co-workers with whom we share affinity (which often means other women of color who may not be a part of these networks). As Hubert points out, “We not only need to be “likeable” to our male colleagues, but also to our female colleagues.” I can think of several instances where going to a work happy hour or event led to a conversation and subsequently, a friendly relationship with an influencer or senior leader in my company. These social activities are crucial to building your internal network. So fight the urge to stay at your desk and work on that project until 9pm or to tell yourself, “I don’t drink beer so I’m not going to the happy hour.” Have a glass of wine.

Developing an Authentic Voice

Women [and men] of color sometimes struggle with feeling able to bring their “whole selves” to work. With the goal of fitting in, we often silence ourselves. This silence can be crippling. After all, how can you become a leader that inspires confidence in others when you don’t exhibit the courage to be yourself?

Part of finding your voice comes from the very simple practice of speaking.

When I was hired by a beauty company a couple of years ago, one of the strategic imperatives for the brand was to attract a more ‘multi-ethnic’ customer, particularly Hispanic and African-American women. This focus was one of the reasons I actually accepted the position. I was excited to join a general market luxury brand and help expand the positioning to reach an audience that included women like myself. Yet old habits die hard. When I got there, I would sit in meetings and hear suggestions for marketing and creative strategy that I knew wouldn’t resonate with black women. I was new and was careful about what I said, not wanting to come across as too vocal or aggressive. I wanted to be liked. But I was hired to do a job, of which a part was to help this brand appeal to women of color. So I leaned in, voiced my opinion – not only as a black woman, but more importantly, as a qualified marketing executive with meaningful professional and personal experiences to contribute.

Race and gender dynamics are far too complex for this one article or even for one book to tackle. And everyone’s story is different. For this woman of color, leaning in meant making the unpopular decision to leave a career people thought I was crazy to abandon to create Black MBA Women, a much-needed media platform to offer the content, community and career development necessary for high-potential black women to reach executive ranks. If we’re going to change the ratio, we have to be in a position to compete.

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