Is It Enough for Black Women to ‘Lean In’ To Succeed?

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April 9, 2013 ‐ By C. Cleveland

Most of the barriers holding you back from reaching the same level of professional success as men are in your own mind. That’s the message behind Sheryl Sandberg’s much talked about bestselling memoir/manifesto Lean In. Many Black women are responding with a resounding, “speak for yourself.”

Sandberg admits that as an Ivy League graduate and COO of Facebook, she has access to privilege other women don’t. But she still believes women can break down institutionalized barriers by changing the way they think. What about the women who were “leaning in” before there was a book about it? Is “leaning in” enough for Black women to succeed?

Twice the Effort For Less Reward

History says, no. Black professionals have long subscribed to the belief that they have to work twice as hard as their White counterparts to attain the same amount of success. For years, Black women have excelled at Lean In principles like dreaming big and sitting at tables where they aren’t welcome, only to see their efforts go unrewarded.

Professional black women make up only one percent of U.S. corporate officers, despite the fact that 75 percent of corporate executives believe that having minorities in senior level positions improves innovation and better serves customers. Half the Black women surveyed for the Alliance for Board Diversity Census believed they have not received the rewards and recognition they should have earned for their investment on the job.

This may explain why Black women are leaving to start their own business at three-to-five times the rate of all business. Some 1.9 million firms are majority-owned (51 percent or more) by women of color who employ over 1.2 million people according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.

Breaking Rules Effectively

Rather than working harder to succeed at someone else’s game it may be time to work smarter and succeed on our own terms. And Sandberg may be of some help. A big part of her approach to business involves understanding the playing field and reworking it your advantage. As the saying goes, you have to know the rules well to break them effectively.

Ginny Clarke, author of Career Mapping, Charting Your Course and founder of Talent Optimization Partners, tells the Huffington Post that Black women suffer from not being privy to advancement strategies their White counterparts have access to.

“Our mothers might have worked, even as professionals, but not likely in a corporate setting,” Clarke says. “Consequently, we don’t have the same exposure, awareness, confidence or executive intelligence on matters of corporate compensation, politics, etc. We also often don’t know our value and won’t ask for fair remuneration for it. We get dazzled and flattered by big numbers and lofty titles and sometime fail to question these offerings relative to our male counterparts.”

Don’t Tune Sandberg Out

Whether you’re playing the corporate game or striking out on your own, Sandberg’s lessons are worth paying attention to. She advises women on how to position their requests to get around the bias held against successful women and advocates women speaking up and working together to bring about an equal working environment.

So maybe leaning in can help Black women, but it’s not enough. While we’re waiting for the existing system to acknowledge our worth, let’s lean on building systems of our own.

C. Cleveland covers professional development topics and entrepreneurial rebels who blaze their own career paths. She explores these stories and more on The Red Read, Twitter (@CleveInTheCity) and Facebook (/MyReadIsRed).

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