Leaning In Can Pay Off For Black Women But Not As Much

The book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has received a lot of press. It’s been said that Sandburg is the voice of the modern day woman. The premise of the book, generally speaking, is that in order for women to succeed they have to lean into their environment (e.g. Corporate America) and try to balance their lives. Women need to let go of the notion of having it all. Sounds wonderful. But all of the discussion leaves me with one question, does this work for black women?

An often debated idea is that Affirmative Action was started as a way to move white women into the workforce following the return of husband-soldiers from the war. Since that time no doubt white women have made significant progress into the executive ranks of major corporations. However, black women have not made the same strides and are often times subject to what’s known as the black tax – working three times as hard just to be considered as good. Unfortunately across the board women are still paid a fraction of every dollar a man is paid.

Back to the question at hand, given the stereotypes black women are bombarded with does ‘Leaning In’ work for us? We’re often portrayed as loud and crazy so when we start to push and take our seat at the table as Sandburg suggests, is it perceived positively. I can speak from own experiences…it depends. I’ve been in environments where it was expected I speak up while others demanded my tacit compliance and a smile. A study released by the League of Black Women, Risk and Reward: Black Women Leading Out On A Limb, explored this issue from the perspective of black women taking risks.

LBW image 1The key finding of those surveyed found that despite popular belief black women do take risks in order to move ahead, but those risks are not yielding the same rewards that they may be for others. Almost half of the respondents said they feel they are behind where they feel they should be in their careers despite risk-taking and high performance. Half of those women felt that negative stereotypes about women of color were the main contributors to this. Also toward the top of perceived barriers were lack of opportunities and resources to pursue goals and few (or no) women of color in positions of power. The study also sites a lack of support for black women in the form of mentorship and sponsorship. A sponsor is someone with the influence to bang on the table to advocate on your behalf. There are various reasons why these barriers exist.

Moving up is made more difficult for black women as there is noticeable gap of them holding the top spots. White women hold 13% of board seats in Fortune 500 companies compared to 2% for black women. The implication of this is there isn’t a model for “mainstream” America to refer to in understanding black women in these roles. Black women throughout American history have been seen as hard workers and caretakers, not necessarily as leaders and strategists.


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The piece does provide some advice to black women on handling risk taking as well as advice to Corporate America. While the focus is on Corporate America, these findings can probably be applied to just about any industry, position or function.

  • Select your companies and organizations wisely
  • Be bold when working in teams
  • Build a diverse network of mentors and trusted advisors
  • Evaluate the strength of your strategic relationships
  • Focus on the results of the risk instead of the activity
  • Document risk taking activities
  • Pursue and be willing to move into corporate line positions with profit and loss responsibilities
  • Make sure you are in a position to take certain types of risk at work
  • Go for bigger assignments
  • Align yourself with core business functions of the organizations
  • Be willing to relocate and travel
  • Identify risk takers in your organization
  • Learn a foreign language
  • Utilize African American affinity groups
  • Hire an executive coach

While it is mentioned, I can’t stress enough the importance of cultivating advocates and sponsors so that when you take a risk, get results and perform well someone is there to blow the horn for you. You want visibility. Go ahead new black chicks and take risks, build a solid foundation around those risks. And remember to look out for the person next to you and behind you if for no other reason than you too are next too and behind someone.

I’m just keeping it new.



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