(Bloomberg) — “I don’t lean in. I list from side to side.” That was my immediate response to “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” written by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Nell Scovell in 2013. “Lean In” quickly became a watchword for business women. We were supposed to take risks. Demand a seat at the table. Speak up and be heard.
Now a new book is offering women of color another direction. Don’t lean. Team.
The trouble with the lean-in premise is that it overlooked what Black women like me already knew—something that’s been confirmed time and again, mostly recently in this year’s “State of Black Women in Corporate America” report by McKinsey & Co. and Leanin.org, the organization Sandberg founded: Black women are less likely than White women to have managers who promote their work, advocate for them or give them leadership responsibilities.
So my own dismissive reaction to “Lean In” spoke to that deeper truth. As former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama summed it up while on her 2018 book tour, as she spoke about the struggle to have and do it all: “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that s— doesn’t work.”
The weakness in the case for leaning in is that the actions of women alone do little to alter the biases and obstacles in existing corporate power structures. In short, it’s not women who need to change but the organizations where they work.
Moreover, women who seem to take charge may be rewarded in some settings, but just as often they can be disenfranchised or penalized. Women who ask for raises, for example, are less likely to get them than men who do, research has found. This is doubly so for Black women, who run the risk of being perceived as aggressive or angry when they try to take leadership roles.
So when word of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” (published by Wordeee, Oct. 15) crossed my desk, it caught my eye. Teaming up. Is that leaning in for Black women? The book, written by Bonita C. Stewart and Jacqueline Adams, is billed as a “playbook” for successful Black women. It explores the challenges and rewards of professional growth for Black women whose whirlwind lives of family, graduate school, promotions, stagnation and success seemed familiar.
Adams explained the book’s title: “We’re rare beings like unicorns—Black women in corporate settings. It turns out a collective of unicorns is called a blessing.”
Adams and Stewart are themselves unicorns. Adams was the first Black female White House correspondent, covering the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, for CBS News. Stewart, meanwhile, is the first Black vice president at Google, rising in the White, male-dominated tech world.
Their collaboration stems from their time at Harvard Business School. Both were featured in the school’s 2013 commemoration of 50 years of women in the masters program. Stewart had written in her reunion bio at the time: “To all women of color, I say while we need to ‘Lean In’ we will do best if we TEAM UP. Surround yourself with those who believe in the diversity of thought, race and gender.”
The book is a “business case,” Adams said in a video interview. It includes data from their survey of 4,005 cross-generational, multiracial female office workers. The data points to the increasing percentage of Black, brown and GenZ (born 1996-2015) women who companies will have to understand as employees and ultimately as customers in the future.
“A Blessing” acknowledges that Black women alone can’t change the status quo. One chapter outlines the argument for “40 allies and a stretch assignment,” a reference to the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” for emancipated U.S. slaves. The idea, Stewart explained, is simple: Managers must make sure talented Black women not only have challenging assignments but also have a group of allies from across the race and gender spectrum who are ready to provide support, critical feedback and advocate on their behalf.
Lanaya Irvin, the president of Coqual, the recently rebranded inclusive think tank Center for Talent Innovation, agrees that Black women cannot rise in significant numbers alone. “It is extremely important to have that team alongside you as you confront bias, as you champion your successes, and you collaborate to drive transformative corporate culture,” she said.
“Teaming up is a mindset,” Stewart said. “We have a lot of experts in our community, but we need to share information.”
In another passage, “A Letter to Our White Male Allies,” Adams and Stewart urge managers to veer from their comfort zone and to look for potential and not just perfection when hiring or promoting candidates — practical advice that the authors hope readers will bring back to their offices.
The last chapter instructs readers to lead, empower and thrive without presenting any neatly wrapped solutions. Indeed, Stewart and Adams write: “This book may have reached its conclusion, but our journey hasn’t.”
Although “A Blessing” could help successful Black women share their tools for coping with stress, shoddy service, managing family commitments and navigating career advancement, it isn’t clear how much of a difference “teaming up” will make in the face of persistent institutional and historic racism.
Like “Lean In” before it, the book might spark some new conversations about race and gender equality as the world grapples with the Black Lives Matter and systemic inequities movements. It will be interesting to see where “teaming up” takes those conversations and whether they bring measurable change to long-standing practices and patterns that have stranded talented Black women and deprived companies and the economy of their skills.
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