Five years into the Lean In era seems like a good time to think about how ambitious women are faring. Practically seen as a series of commandments now, the book became a polarising manifesto — an inspiration to some and an unneeded reminder to others.
Sheryl Sandberg later acknowledged some of Lean In's shortcomings — that it failed to address the realities of single-parent households and, as others charged, the unique challenges of women of colour. More recently, Maura Cheeks, a writer and MBA candidate at NYU's Stern School of Business, researched just that to see how black women are navigating the intersection of race and gender at work.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Cheeks delves into to the experiences of Black women claiming spaces in professional spheres with few other women like them to lean on. She interviewed 10 women of colour to learn about their workplace challenges and coping mechanisms, and how they believed those tactics would impact them in the long run.
The women's stories indicated that they were go-getters with high aspirations, but they often seemed stuck in self-doubt. Many of them regularly second-guessed their thoughts and actions, hesitating to voice their opinions on work-related matters or keeping their vibrant personalities under wraps out of fear of being stereotyped. One respondent talked about "dimming [her] light" and another passed on an opportunity to continue working in the White House under President Obama because she felt judged by her race and gender.
Women in the study who were more confident reported performing better with colleagues and managers of the same race who understood their cultural references and didn't judge them on "intangible things" — but interacting with Black women in positions of power was rare.
Cheeks cites Fortune writer Ellen McGirt's article on the complete absence of African-American women running Fortune 500 companies. And last year, Lean In investigated the same phenomenon in its annual "Women in the Workplace" study with McKinsey. That research showed a growing percentage of white women, across the board, finding more success with support, advancement, mentorship, and sponsorship, while Black, Latina, and Asian women lagged behind. Black women had the lowest rates of managers defending them or their work, helping them to navigate office politics, providing advice, and providing stretch assignments.
Being left out of those exclusive intra-network opportunities can have a demoralising impact. In Cheeks' small study, one consultant said sponsors were essential to getting projects but that Black people in her work community had a hard time finding those connections.
The takeaway is that the workplace can often be isolating for Black women. A different woman Cheeks interviewed talked about feeling distraught and alone after reading about police killing a person of colour. Her coworkers' text chain focused on "Hollywood gossip" about a couple breaking up, but never touched on the shooting. She was left with the distinct, disillusioning impression that her colleagues lived, and worked, in an entirely different world.