Lean In: When Black Women in the Workplace Talk

Lean In: When Black Women in the Workplace Talk

When Facebook’s No. 2 executive and billionaire, Sheryl Sandberg, released her book entitled, “Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead,” earlier this year, it was sure to become a success. The back cover reveals an endorsement by Oprah, who labeled the book, “The new manifesto for women in the workplace,” followed by the raving reviews of The New York Times, The New Yorker, Fortune, Forbes, The Atlantic, and Entertainment Weekly. It’s no secret; everyone wants to hear what Sandberg has to say on the topic of women and leadership.

For experienced professional women in the workplace, Sandberg is actually not saying anything new. On the other hand, she is a woman who has been privileged to have education, access, opportunity, mentorship, sponsors, and coaches, all of which increased her likelihood of success in the workplace. When people look at Sandberg, they a see a white woman and it is important to recognize that her experiences are not typical of the average woman who works. From her privileged experiences, she paints a broad stroke in her assessments without fully acknowledging all of power dynamics at play, particularly when considering the experiences of women of color.

As an African-American woman who has encountered professional power struggles while serving in the military and federal government in predominately white male-dominated environments, I wanted to have a conversation with an African-American woman in the corporate arena to discuss the applicability of “Lean In” for Black women who work. I am honored to have this talk with Dr. Ancella Livers, who is the author of “Leading in Black and White: Working across the Racial Divide in Corporate America” and Senior Design Faculty of the global Center of Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. Dr. Livers is an expert in designing programs for leadership training and coaching.

Dr. Livers, thank you for taking the time with speak with UrbanFaith. What were your initial thoughts after reading “Lean In?”

Sandberg hasn’t said anything new. She does speak from a white privilege perspective and when considering the implications of racial or ethnic minorities, she does not know what she does not know. I thought the book was good for the purpose of bringing this long-standing conversation to the forefront with a new generation of leaders. This is not the first time that we are having this conversation, though the issues are still current and a young audience needs to hear the conversation introduced from a new teller. Sandberg is the new teller who shapes this conversation to raise the consciousness for a younger generation of women who do not have to fight to break into entry level positions because the generations before them have broken threw to gain access for them. For the younger generation, the disparity and continuation of the gender struggle is sometimes not evident until later in their professional careers. Even in the gender struggle, we must be careful to understand, however, that the middle and upper-class white woman’s experience is not the experiences of everybody.

Is Sandberg’s perspective one that fits only within the white female experience or can it be universalized as women’s experience regardless of race or ethnicity?  

Sandberg possibly does not see how a person’s race impacts their view. She seems to have no awareness of how her race and economic status help her navigate society, work, and the world because her “norms” obviously colors how she sees and navigates the world. She wrote a book for professional women and she wrote from the perspective of a privileged white woman. However, just because her perspective is somewhat limited, does not mean that others who do not share her privilege cannot benefit from reading her book. “Lean In” introduces the conversations of women, work, and leadership in a way that we haven’t been doing in years. It introduces a conversation to a new generation that may not be aware of these challenges in the past. These conversations are important. We need to talk about the implications, barriers, and circumstances for professional women that work, and just because the book does not completely meet our needs as African-American women, does not mean that it has no value.

I recently read a review of the book that was written by an African American male leader who wrote: “I wonder if the author is using the term “men” globally or for white men in particular. I find as a man of color that her assumptions are primarily about white men. Her illustrations of success are primarily about white women. Black women have been leaders for a long time–but have not had access. The author has had money, education and networks. She has also has had access–and now wants ownership. Many women of color are just trying to get in the door–and men of color as well.” What are your thoughts on this comment?

Sandberg is at the top of the ladder and her environment mostly includes white men. She should want ownership. When we have put in the work, we should all want ownership. Throughout American history, we have consistently seen this battle between race and gender. This was the source of many conversations when Hillary Clinton was campaigning against Barack Obama for the presidency—the underlining question became, “Who is going to become President first, a white woman or a black man?” Even within the African-American community, on many levels we are asking the question, “Does maleness trump blackness?” In the same way that white women don’t see their race as a physical norm that may benefit them professionally, black men often don’t see the benefits of their gender.

In chapter 5, Sandberg raises the important topic of the need for mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace. She has succeeded largely because others have sponsored her by opening doors and giving her access. Andy Crouch is the executive producer of Christianity Today’s This is Our City project and executive editor of Christianity Today. He just released his new book titled, “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power,” which reminded me of our need to have more conversations about the power dynamics in the work place. One of his promotional video clips for the book is entitled, “Playing the Cello.” In it, he shares how he started taking cello lessons from an expert cellist who is investing his time in teaching Andy, the amateur, how to play the cello. Through teaching, the expert is making room for Andy to learn how to play the cello, which increases the “power” and gift of cello playing in the world. The expert cellist’s power to play the cello is not diminished by Andy’s new found ability and increased skill to play the cello, but as a result of his teaching and mentoring, the power to play the cello has flourished in the world. I think that’s a beautiful example of what we can see in the workplace when our understanding of what is available to us is increased. When the fear of another person taking our power goes away, the people who have power are more generous with the offerings they make to others and to the world. Do you agree?

There is research about scarcity or even the perception of scarcity in the workplace and its direct connection to the unwillingness to help others, even those who are like us.

In their scholarly article, “Evolution and Patriarchal Myths of Scarcity and Competition,” Michael Gross and Mary Beth Averill present scarcity and competition as two related themes in the patriarchal image of nature. Even the connectedness of the two themes, speaks to the importance and need of diversity in the workplace where all people are valued because of their differences and the experiences they bring to the table. As more diverse people are included and their contributions are valued in leadership positions, board meetings, and organizations, then the power of creating and producing increases, and the perception of scarcity and competition is minimized.  

UrbanFaith readers, what are your perceptions of Sandberg’s “Lean In?” Does it speak to the Black woman’s experience? How does this book contribute to the field of leadership development and the relationships between men and women in the workplace?