Do Black Women Need To ‘Lean In’ To Break The Glass Ceiling? The Debate Continues

March 27, 2013  |  

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg causes a firestorm of debate with new book/campaign Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, in which she prods women to be more aggressive in business. In a blog post for The Washington PostMary C. Curtis asks “Do black women need lessons on ‘leaning in’?”

Sandberg claims that women are not successful in business, in large part, because they don’t play like the big boys. Some working women were offended by the theory, saying that it is easy for Sandberg to pass judgment as she had many helping hands on her way up the ladder. Other detractors say no matter how hard women fight for corporate rank, most will still hit a ceiling. It isn’t women who need to change, the argument goes, but the corporate culture.

And now many black female executives are giving their opinion. African-American women in the workplace most often face different obstacles. “[B]lack women have long been in the work force, facing different and difficult obstacles. Sandberg warns that being assertive, a positive quality in a man, can be judged as ‘too aggressive’ behavior in a women. For black women, the line between leaning in and being perceived as stereotypically pushy is awfully thin. The rewards may be less and the risks far greater,” writes Curtis.

Many feminists too are weighing in on the “lean in” discussion.  And some are not upset, but rather, inspired by it. Gloria Steinem, notes Curtis,  says Lean In “addresses internalized oppression, opposes the external barriers that create it, and urges women to support each other to fight both.”  Her view is that critics “are making a deep if inadvertent point: Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

But as Curtis points out the feminists movement over time has excluded black women. “When the feminist icon weighs in, it’s a reminder that the women’s movement, too, has long been accused of catering to elite circles and leaving others out,” she writes. But adds that many black women have been involved in the  “lean in” conversation.

“It’s a conversation I’ve taken part in, reminding movement leaders of their debt to civil rights progress and occasional failure to acknowledge the added burdens working-class women and women of color face. The matter of ‘choice’ — the ultimate goal — isn’t always theirs to make,” she says.

What do you think about the “lean in” concept?

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