I started working when I was 14 years old. My first job was as an intern at a television station when I was in high school. Since then, I’ve worked at a pharmaceutical company, tech startups, digital publishing companies, and had a decade long career in the nonprofit sector. While the roles may have changed, one thing remained the same — I’ve always been a black woman working.
For years, I thought that working hard, being enthusiastic, and pitching in would be enough to move up the ladder in my career. I later learned to add speaking up for myself, being intentional about pointing out my contributions, and asking for the salary I thought I deserved. Still, I struggled to advanced even while being touted as “indispensable” and “the heart of the team.”
That’s why, when Michelle Obama commented during her 2018 book tour for Becoming, “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time,” I wanted to jump up and down screaming “I tried to tell y’all!”
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO wrote the book, Lean In in 2013 as a manifesto to working women. In the book, she suggests (among other things) that women are leaving the workforce to have children too soon, that female leaders need to be more confident, and women should help each other succeed. None of this is wrong. In my experience, though, leaning in hasn’t been particularly helpful when it comes to advancing my career. In some cases, it has actually held me back.
I’m not the only one who was fooled into leaning in only to have it backfire. Ask other women of color, even the ones who have the money and the education to get into desired spaces, and many of them will tell you the same thing. Leaning in doesn’t work for us. Not consistently anyway.
In full disclosure, I read Lean In years ago and found it to be insightful, even through its tone-deafness. Like Michelle Obama said, it doesn’t always work, but there are some things that made sense. Getting your partner to pitch in, not worrying about people liking you, and working on things and with people you care about is all good advice. You still have to be cautious with these things when you’re a woman of color.
There have been many times I’ve stepped up to take on more work to help a colleague out, speak out and be the voice of reason or expertise, and hopped on projects that I’m truly passionate about and I knew I could contribute a lot to. I can’t tell you how many times white managers (both men and women) have taken my enthusiasm as a threat to them and their position, and done what they could to put me in my place.
I experienced this for the first time at the non-profit I worked for. I’d been working there for years without a promotion or a raise. Everyone spoke highly of me, and at the request of the executive team, I had my hands in a lot of different pots in the organization. I was proud that my skills were an asset to the team, and happy to pitch in as much as possible. When I asked for a raise, though, my supervisor suddenly got amnesia. He couldn’t understand why I was asking for more money and a promotion. Even though I was managing my own team, responsible for launching several successful new programs, and supporting the organization overall, he couldn’t see my point. It took me threatening to leave the company to get him to agree to a title change — not even a raise! All of that leaning in did nothing for my paycheck.
Another time, in a meeting for our educational programs, we discovered our students weren’t achieving the goals we set for them. When I wanted to stop and dig deeper into why, and figure out a solution for the issue, I was called “emotional” and told to lower my expectations. Afterwards, a friend pulled me aside and let me know that I seemed “angry.” Even though I was merely being passionate, even though my remarks were in direct response to real data, and even though I was only trying to do the work that I was hired to do, I was looked at as being an angry black woman. At the next meeting, our director started off by instructing us to save our comments so we could get through the agenda. Since I was the only one who had been speaking out, it was clear that she was saying that to silence me. The message was received. I needed my job, so I just stayed quiet. So much for leaning in.
I’ve talked to hundreds of women of color over the years, black women in particular, who have dealt with similar issues. We pour our entire selves into a job, only to be overlooked by a managerial position when one finally opens up. We’ve shared our perspectives with our teams in an effort to improve the company products or services, particularly when it relates to diversity, only to be outvoted by a team of white folks who just “don’t get it.” When we do try to address our issues with HR or a supervisor, we get labeled as difficult or angry. From that point on, we have a target on our backs. Black women can do everything right and still make less than every other person on the team. We can pitch, lean, or fill in and still be overlooked for opportunities to advance.
So what’s the issue? In many cases, the people who are assessing the value of the lean in are looking at it from the lens of their own perspective. They’re also often basing who to promote on things that are unrelated to the actual work. Their friend, someone they feel comfortable and like hanging out with, or a colleague they know is having tough time and needs a break, will get the raise over the woman of color who’s been bending over backwards to do great work.
Black women, women of color, we know that we have to be ten times better than everyone else in order to be seen, so when we’re doing the basic stuff, it looks easy. That’s by design. We don’t bring our personal problems into the workplace. You won’t know we’re having health issues. The hurt that we feel after we’re slighted for another promotion? You won’t know about it because we understand that we can’t be emotional. Or too open. Or too human. It’s bullshit. Leaning in hasn’t done anything other than left us all exhausted.
The bright side is that there are more women of color leaving the workforce to start their own businesses. We’re recognizing our power and leaning into our thing. Instead of putting our all into building up companies that do nothing but knock us down, we’re creating companies that we can depend on. It’s time.
Thank you, Michelle Obama, for saying what needed to be said. Time to start leaning into ourselves.
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