By Alnisa Bell • October 05, 2017•Writers in Residence
I’ve read so much commentary following Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, that leaning in for women of color in the workplace presents a different set of challenges. The book encourages women to speak up in order to advance their careers and to not count themselves out too early in process. As Sandberg notes, women “leave before they leave,” meaning women deliberately hold themselves back because eventually they may need to give up their careers for marriage, child-rearing and/or other life circumstances. Sandberg challenges women to stay the course.
However, as the criticism of the book goes, women of color have been leaning in for years without much progress. According to a 2016 LeanIn.org study, women of color are the most underrepresented in corporate America although they make up 20% of the U.S. population, have a higher participation rate in the labor market and higher career aspirations compared to white women. According to a 2014 survey from The Center for Talent Innovation, black women at work want the following: 91% want to flourish; 89% want to excel; 85% want to reach for meaning and purpose; 81% want to earn well; and 73% want to empower others. If women of color are not deliberately holding themselves back and want to attain higher positions then why is leaning in not working for women of color? The truth is, women of color have been leaning in for generations without much results. Even worse, women of color who want to lean in may be concerned about being perceived as stereotypically pushy and that risk far outweighs any benefit so they lean in tepidly.
Regardless, you have to raise your hand and speak up for opportunities. If the opportunities do not readily come to you, you need to be strategic and think about whether your current place of employment is the right fit for you. Some women of color may find themselves in a quagmire; however, because they are the sole breadwinners in their households or may be the only income and have other familial responsibilities that may impede them from leaving their current job in search of another opportunity that may very well be no different than the one they left behind. These are real challenges—not to be glossed over—when discussing the realities women of color face at work.
As women, we have to be our own advocates. I’m reminded of a recent New York Times Op-ed written by retired United States District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin titled, Female Lawyers Can Talk, Too. The article reveals the results of a New York State Bar Association’s study of women speaking in Court. In the study, judges were asked “to note the gender of lawyers who primarily spoke in every case they heard over the four months.” The study received 2,800 responses and the results showed little progress for women. Women were the lead attorneys on cases “barely 20%” of the time in federal and state courts at the trial and appellate levels. Judge Scheindlin recalled that oftentimes when she was a judge, she would ask a tough question of a senior male lawyer who would often turn to a young lawyer—usually a woman—who would whisper the answer into the male lawyer's ear. Judge Scheindlin said she would privately query why the young, woman lawyer was not arguing the motion herself.
The article did not discuss minority women and the frequency in which they speak in Court or appear as lead trial counsel (likely because the study did not gather this information), but they likely comprise only a small fraction of the women who speak regularly in Court. For me, I am fortunate to work at a law firm that gives me opportunities to have first chair responsibilities, e.g., regularly appearing in Court, taking depositions, handling mediations and settlement conferences, etc. I am encouraged to speak up and to contribute. Belive it or not, you can have these experiences at a large law firm. For those who do not have similar opportunities, raise your hand and seek them out. If you don’t raise your hand, you’re not in the game. And I get it, for women of color, many do raise their hands and it has not made much of a difference in terms of promotion and advancement. If you decide to stay the course; however, make sure you have supporters within your law firm who are invested in your success and who will provide you with opportunities for growth and development. That’s what makes the difference for women of color. Let’s be honest, women of color could lean all the way in until they fell over, but unless they have the support of the key players to hold them up, it will be a long, difficult road to success. Start seeking out mentors and sponsors and building those relationships early in your career.