13 Aug Get In Before You Lean In
Why “Leaning In” (and other hashtag advice) isn’t the silver bullet for black women in a still-white-dominated corporate world.
Disclaimer: I’m not the angry black woman, let’s just take that off the table, which technically says something given that I have to put that out there. I’ve lived a relatively charmed life and experienced my share of corporate-world success.
That said, there is a full-grown, elder elephant in the room. What we often fail to recognize is that white women and black women are starting from two different places. The conventional wisdom being spread about closing the wage gap in corporate America doesn’t take this into account. Failing to acknowledge the underlying issue is, at best, unintentionally misguided; and at worst, masterfully designed to keep black women working twice as hard to still only get half. Whereas white women only typically make 80 cents on the dollar compared to white males, black women struggle to make 61 cents on the dollar. Over the course of forty years, the difference can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s why there is an Equal Pay Day for Black women, which happens to be today.
Black women have never been “protected” from the workforce in America. From the fields to the kitchens to the cubicles, we’ve always been in the “workforce”, with our contributions undervalued and remarkably unseen by those we served; including white women who entered the workforce later and in front of black women. On the other hand, white women entered the workforce after being a protected class (white women), sheltered from labor and perceived as delicate, to be kept safe by staying in the home. And yes, there were other reasons that kept white women in the home, like the white male ego for instance, but that’s a different article for another time. And once white women gained the right to work, they bunny-hopped over the menial jobs black women were toiling away in, straight to a desk or cube. So, for white women, consider this the “in”. We ARE starting from vastly different places.
So, we need to acknowledge that our frame of reference starts at different points. Just know that when we toss around phrases like “lean in,” many women of color – specifically black women – haven’t even gained access to the table to begin the strategic work of leaning in. As much as women need men to be an active participant, advocate, and ally in the movement for equity; black women also need white women to join in as an active participant, advocate, and ally for black women who are seeking equity and requiring to be seen, heard, and respected.
Here’s what I believe the path forward is:
1.) To my black sisters: take a breath and think about what you need to feel supported, to be seen, to be heard, and to have equity applied. I mean really think about it. Then, write that down what you need and how it looks to you. We say black people are not a monolith, which is true; so we have to articulate our needs individually. What works for me may not work for you. Know that having different needs for yourself is perfectly okay. Lastly, share that with your leaders, managers, and HR. It’s essential that you articulate to those you are seeking equity and support from, because no one is a mind reader.
And be prepared to be an active participant in the dialogue, the solutioning, and implementation. I know, it would be nice if everything just magically came to fruition. But this is new territory for many, and the learning curve could be a steep one. As long as all parties are open and willing to be coached while demonstrating incremental changes, be patient and supportive (yep, it goes both ways).
2.) To my white sisters: the question is how, not why. How can I help? How can I demonstrate my support? How can I advocate for and advance this individual? I know you may be interested in ‘Why does she need my support? Why does she need my advocacy? Can’t she tell her own story? Can’t she advocate for herself?’ Withhold the ‘5 Why’ exercise in this situation, and first tune in. Listen to the ask, and to all the details. Understand that a different frame of reference is required for the situation, and when solutioning the idea, saying “this worked well for me” may not apply. Understand that people must shift their paradigms, which means change. And because it’s change, it’s new, so old approaches and solutions that worked for you or that worked in the past likely won’t work in this situation.
Stay open, assume no malice, and apply evidence-based context/background, not just conjecture and opinions. Find and test the balance in being led and being the leader. Know that often the dialogue may be difficult to have and to hear, but stay in. This difficult and challenging conversation may take 30 minutes of your day, but consider that it could represent years of someone else’s life. If you cannot help or provide that support, be honest and transparent. The individual asking for help doesn’t need any more empty promises. And know this: while being an ally and helping to solve issues, the problem you help to solve may be your own.
In the end, we really only have each other. And this is just one perspective of many. I encourage you to seek out other voices from as many perspectives as you can find. And seek input not just on the internet, but in real life. Talk to your neighbors, peers, associates, friends. Explore life outside of your comfort zone. Go to a different church, shop at a different grocery store, or eat at different restaurants (Ethiopian, Cuban, Brazilian, Nigerian, Polish, etc.). Invite and embrace different. Learn as much as you can to help those who aren’t in to get in. Then, we can ALL lean in together in all ways and always.