To Sheryl Sandberg: Black Women Have Always 'Leaned In'

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(PRWeek) In Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes: "Authentic communication is not always easy, but it is the basis for successful relationships at home and real effectiveness at work. Yet people constantly back away from honesty to protect themselves and others. We are so rarely brave enough to tell the truth."

With this inspiration, I am speaking – and "leaning in" – to my truth. I‘ve never felt comfortable publicly sharing it for fear of being labeled divisive or "not a team player." However, its relevance to the conversation that Sandberg has reignited outweighs any anxiety about confronting it.

Simply put, this book represents Sandberg's truth. It is a prescription that will certainly help remedy some of the internal ills feeding the disease of gender inequality. But for some women, it also lacks critical relevance on key points.

My request of – or advice to – agencies and corporations as they navigate their diversity and inclusion journeys is to not take Sandberg's truth and try to make it their own, or vice versa. In our strides toward more inclusive environments, we should understand that even in gender, we are not monolithic and do not all share a common experience.

Because of my own journey, I staunchly believe in individual accountability and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps fortitude. As such, I was eager to jump aboard Sandberg's self-reflective train. However, as an African-American woman living in a country that is far from post-gender, much less post-racial, I – and countless women like me – have had different experiences regarding issues such as ambition, likeability, and mentoring.

“Ambition” is not a bad word to many of us. I rode the coattails of my ambition when a white female manager once told me I should be “insecure” and “uncomfortable” every day I walked into the office, or when a new client assumed that I worked for the junior white male on my team and requested that I make coffee while they talked. Ambition has kept me going.

Unlike Sandberg, neither my friends nor I were encouraged more by our parents to marry than to achieve academic excellence. Success was expected. Being called ambitious meant we were “go-getters.” It wasn't a label to hide, but to wear proudly.

In fact, in April 2012, Psychological Science published a study that found that black women leaders were “approved for assertiveness in the workplace.” One of the co-authors, associate professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, observed that the findings indicated that “just because a role is prescribed to women in general doesn't mean it will be prescribed for black women.” In other words, there are other obstacles that make it difficult for black women on their corporate ladder climb – or, in Sandberg-speak, “jungle gym scramble.”

Sandberg also discusses success and likeability, which for her meant muting her accomplishments. Likeability has long been a lesser desire for me than being respected. I didn't seek to be disliked, but for many of us the yearning to be liked dissipated earlier in life.

I recall an incident when I was 7. One of my white male classmates called me the n-word when I wouldn't throw him the ball. When you grow up being “disliked” for something as arbitrary as skin color, likeability can lose its allure. However, being respected, valued, and esteemed for who you are as a person and your accomplishments gains importance. Neither the desires to be liked nor respected are inherently wrong. Both are based in culturally reinforced signals that manifest differently.

Sandberg also addresses mentorship and sponsorship. Her advice is to stop telling women to “'Get a mentor and you will excel.' Tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.'” As much as we might want to hold on to this ideal, our aspiration is handcuffed by societal issues even Sandberg acknowledges we still face, including sexism and discrimination – issues which people bring to work every day.

Numerous studies have shown that African Americans tend to have fewer mentors and sponsors than their white colleagues. Fortunately, I've had many senior leaders mentor or sponsor me along the way. This has undoubtedly been critical in my advancement. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed the derailment of others who were no different from me – except that no one advocated for them.

Mentorship and sponsorship do not foster dependency on others. They simply get us closer to leveling the playing field until our aspiration and reality meet.

We may not share a common experience, but we can continue to embrace, learn from, and move beyond our differences in the common goal toward creating a more equal – and effective – workplace. As Sandberg writes, “Knowing that things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better. What would you do if you weren't afraid?”


A Black Woman's Perspective on Being In The Workplace
The Unwritten Rules: What it Means to be a Black Woman in Corporate America
10 Black Feminists/Womanists Everyone Should Know

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