Lean In: When Black Women in the Workplace Talk

An interview with Dr. Ancella Livers on whether Sheryl Sandberg's book applies to the experience of black women in the workplace.

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?

About the author, Natasha S. Robinson

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women's Mentoring Ministry Leader, and recent graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary having earned a M.A. in Christian Leadership. Connect with Natasha through her website, www.natashasrobinson.com; blog, A Sista's Journey, Twitter @asistasjourney, and Facebook at NatashaSistrunkRobinson.
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  2. Women of color live a TOTALLY DIFFERENT REALITY in the workplace and academia than their white counterparts. Euro-american females ARE passed over for promotions, hit the glass ceiling, etc. Big, heavyset white women often don’t get the same privileges as their smaller-boned Euro-sisters. However, women of color face double or triple barriers due to their gender, ethnicity, color, body-type and/or language. There are ethnicity/color hierarchies in workplaces/academia, and far too many of us have encountered the Complete Plantation Package (CPP) of not only discrimination, management tricks and pay inequities, but also the “informants” (white or otherwise) who feel it their bounden duty to “tell on” the employees and regularly report to the “Massa.” I worked at one place in which there was a White Informant Network and a Black Informant Network. In today’s multi-ethnic/multicultural workplace, managers may play “divide-and-conquer” games in which one or more ethnicities are pitted against each other–so that the employees of various groups don’t see the REAL enemy, which is always MANAGEMENT. In education–especially public school districts, for example–there are often multiple “hidden barriers” that prevent women of color from being hired, achieving tenure, achieving pay equity, etc. These barriers include “ageism” (districts want to hire cute, young college graduates fresh out of school so that they can EXPLOIT them a little longer); “model syndrome”–slender, model-perfect figures are PREFERRED over heavier, chunkier folks; and “colorism”–the lighter the skin and LESS AFRICAN-LOOKING TRAITS possessed by the candidate, the faster the hire. MEN of color will be hired faster in academia or public education FASTER than women of color, depending upon the subject taught and the age-range. (Some school districts may hire a man thinking that kids will obey them faster and fear them more readily–but that doesn’t square with REALITY. Students of color can often be harder on teachers of color and RESENT any correction–no matter how mild.) A good case in point is for those of us who want to be bilingual or ESL instructors. There are MULTIPLE games going on in many districts, and there are multiple layers of politics you need to be aware of–ESPECIALLY if you are a female of color–and “color” INCLUDES ASIAN, NATIVE-AMERICAN, and LATINA-AMERICAN in addition to AFRICAN AMERICAN. Here’s the deal:

    1. Most public school districts–including large urban ones–are dominated by Euro-americans. So that means that the HUMAN RESOURCES OFFICER is not likely to be
    a person of color. If the HRO is a person of color–and Administration is Euro-american, the
    HRO will be extremely limited in power and scope of his/her job.

    2. If the bilingual/ESL supervisor is a person of color, candidates of color HAVE A CHANCE
    to get an interview, PROVIDED THEY SPEAK LANGUAGES OTHER THAN ENGLISH and can communicate with parents in whatever language the supervisor speaks (Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Russian, etc.). But there are NO guarantees, despite
    the huge shortage of bilingual/ESL teachers!

    3. If the bilingual/ESL candidate is WHITE, YOUNG and SPANISH-SPEAKING, they are assured of employment in many districts–provided they are SLENDER and ATTRACTIVE.
    No heavy or older white women need apply–unless they have outstanding experience and/or linguistic skills.

    4. If the candidate is ASIAN, NATIVE AMERICAN or AFRICAN AMERICAN, they MUST have
    outstanding linguistic skills, regardless of the ethnicity of the bilingual/ESL supervisor, or
    THEY WILL NOT BE HIRED, period. And you BETTER speak FORMAL, ACADEMIC, PRESTIGIOUS VARIETIES OF THESE LANGUAGES–dialectical speech CANNOT and MUST NOT be used at the interview, even if the supervisor speaks it. Darker-skinned Haitian candidates MUST speak impeccable FRENCH–but despite their often superior educations
    (some have studied at the Sorbonne and many have advanced degrees!), they will have difficulty getting hired if they look TOO AFRICAN. Haitians and Latinos can and often do
    FACE DISCRIMINATION FROM AFRICAN AMERICAN SUPERVISORS, who feel threatened
    that other candidates of color “are taking our jobs we worked so long to get”–sound familiar?

    5. AFRO-LATIN and AFRICAN-AMERICAN bilingual/ESL instructors MUST have AN ENGAGING PERSONALITY, must SMILE OFTEN during the interviewing process and be
    IMPECCABLY GROOMED, AND they MUST BE BI-, TRI- or multilingual in order to compete
    successfully with other candidates. Again, there is no guarantee of employment, despite the teacher shortage in this area!

    6. AFRO-LATINA candidates with PRONOUNCED AFRICAN FEATURES and DARK BROWN
    SKIN will have difficulty being hired–especially if they speak CARIBBEAN or other non-prestigious varieties of Spanish. If the bilingual/ESL supervisor is Central or South
    American or “Blanco-Cubano”, he/she may discriminate against OTHER Latina candidates
    based upon their COUNTRY OF ORIGIN, REGION OF ORIGIN or ETHNICITY–especially
    if the candidate appears to be of INDIGENOUS DESCENT or mixed AFRO-INDIGENOUS DESCENT.

    These are workplace varieties of discrimination in only ONE field in education–so, NO, Ms. Sandberg’s book cannot BEGIN to enumerate the issues WOMEN OF COLOR face in ALL workplaces/academia.

  3. Here are a few OTHER issues women of color face in the workplace/academia:

    1. PERCEPTION OF COMPETENCE/INTELLIGENCE–African American, Afro-Latina, Latina
    and Native American women are NEVER seen/perceived as INTELLIGENT, COMPETENT
    or QUALIFIED as are ASIAN or EURO-AMERICAN women. This is especially true if you speak
    STANDARD AMERICAN ENGLISH (SAE) and have a reasonably fluent/academic VOCABULARY. Once you have demonstrated your command of SAE, you are seen as “unusual”, but at that point, you may now “threaten” the self-esteem of the Human Resources
    Officer and Management, who can no longer pigeonhole you as a “dumb minority.”

    Additionally, there is a pronounced “BOUNCEBACK EFFECT” that women of color typically
    encounter–once it is known you are CREATIVE, INTELLIGENT, COMPETENT, CHARISMATIC,
    RESOURCEFUL, etc,, the employer may respond by:

    A. Expecting you to “create something out of nothing”, so funds and resources are WITHHELD from you; but your work performance will be JUDGED as if you had what your white counterparts have in order to perform their jobs correctly;

    B. UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS–you are required to “produce a product” every week,
    do the work of two or three people; manage projects WITHOUT THE AUTHORITY TO DELEGATE RESPONSIBILITY OR MAKE CRUCIAL DECISIONS, etc. And let’s not forget the most critical problem faced by women of color:

    C. WITHHOLDING OF INFORMATION CRITICAL TO JOB SUCCESS. Withholding information
    includes, but is not limited to, NOT INFORMING THE EMPLOYEE OF CRUCIAL MEETINGS OR MEETING TIMES; not informing the employee of SEMINARS, EDUCATIONAL OR TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES provided by the company/institution; “accidentally” NOT SHARING MEMOS OR EMAILS or TELEPHONE CALLS with employees of color–even if they are considered middle or upper management;

    2.COUNTRY OF ORIGIN PREFERENCES– Women of Asian descent face discrimination based upon COUNTRY OF ORIGIN. Japanese, Korean and Chinese candidates will ALWAYS have an edge over their southeast sisters from Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam or the Philippines. Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Kashmiri women will ALWAYS face discrimination BASED UPON COLOR–so it’s no surprise that skin bleaching products are widely used in Asia, as well as Africa.

    3. FAMILY OBLIGATIONS–American workplaces DO NOT WANT WOMEN OF COLOR TO EVER TAKE OFF from their precious work days for FAMILY REASONS, including deaths,
    life-cycle events, graduations, births, etc. YOUR BODY IS JUST SUPPOSED TO BE AT THE JOB, NO MATTER WHAT. Women of color have to watch their supervisors’ reactions and typically MUST LIMIT THEIR DAYS OFF MORE THAT THEIR WHITE COUNTERPARTS for
    attending to family concerns–despite the policy handbook and despite fair practice laws.

    4. SCHEDULING PRACTICES–Women of color typically are forced to work more evenings,
    more week-ends, required to staff the workplace in bad/dangerous/inclement weather
    conditions, and work more holiday Saturdays during those “3-day federal holiday week-ends.”

    5. Women of color typically are expected to PAY OUT OF POCKET for any travel expenses,
    educational fees or seminar fees–and may or may not get reimbursed for same.

    So, again, “leaning in” is NOT ENOUGH for WOMEN OF COLOR, who typically face MORE
    OBSTACLES, BARRIERS AND “MANAGEMENT TRICKS AND TRAPS” in the workplace!

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