Why leaning in has not worked for women of color

The Memo’s Minda Harts makes the case that Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In manifesto ignored the systemic obstacles that women of color face.

Why leaning in has not worked for women of color
[Photo: Flickr user <a href="WOCinTech Chat]

It’s been five years since one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful female executives told women to take ownership of their careers, work harder, and demand more. Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times bestseller, Lean In, opened an important dialogue about women in the workplace—but there was one major problem: It left out women of color—and the unique challenges and obstacles they face.


Sandberg has since acknowledged pay disparities with white women and the ghastly underrepresentation of women of color in the C-suite—and used her foundation to work with the National Urban League and others to bring attention to the gap. But despite her best intentions, her efforts have not been met with much progress, leaving more women of color to lean out for a chance at entrepreneurship, where they can pay themselves, be leaders, and create impact in ways corporate America does not offer. In 2018 alone, there are 2.1 million Latina and 2.4 million African-American women-owned businesses—representing 172% and 164% growth, respectively, over a decade, according to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report.

Where Lean In fell short, critics say, is its failure to acknowledge systemic barriers that no amount of leaning in can tear down. Imagine having to decide whether to use your real name or shorten it to make it ethnically ambiguous, or easier to pronounce. Minda Harts, the founder of The Memo, a digital career education platform dedicated to helping women of color climb the corporate ladder, knows this dilemma. She was born Yassminda Harts and felt the need to shorten it.

Related: Wellness has a diversity issue–these women are changing that

“I had to make people in the workplace feel comfortable with how I show up to work. So, through the years, that’s been beneficial on my career trajectory, but it hinders who I was able to be in the workplace, and we have to show up and choose which route we’re going to go to make others feel comfortable,” she shares.

Minda Harts [Photo: courtesy of Minda Harts]
When Lean In was published, “I didn’t see myself in the book, and I wasn’t represented, but what [Sandberg] did do is leave the door open for us to now talk about why this didn’t work for [women of color],” explains Harts, who will be teaching a course next semester at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service called Leading Diverse Talent.

“It was heavily skewed toward a white woman’s experience in the workplace. Women of color and working-class women have been leaning in since day one, and when you have systemic systems in place that are not set up to advance people of color—women of color in particular—then it’s hard to lean in when you’re invisible,” says Harts.


Related: 5 ways to lean in without burning out

Lean In created a surge of career guides for women, but these self-help books continued to miss the mark with their one-size-fits-all philosophies. “A lot of these books, courses, and conferences do not include the layers of being a woman. Most of those do not touch on intersectionality, which is very important if we’re going to have a conversation about women in the workplace, because we all show up differently in that space,” says Harts.

“I think that you can’t say just lean in and you’ll get more, when you have people who’ve been doing that, and they’re not seeing a return on their investment.”

Harts’s upcoming book, The Memo, named after her startup, will take a deeper look into the struggles women of color face—a subject she regularly tackles in her #SecureTheSeat podcasts.

“[We] don’t talk about what it’s like for women of color to move forward in a workplace that wasn’t created for them,” she explains, noting it’s only been 54 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “For us to move forward, we have to acknowledge that there are inequalities embedded in workplace culture . . . and then we can talk about the tangible solution.”

The “Lean In” narrative puts the responsibility back on women instead of focusing on key systemic workplace issues that hold women back, according to a Duke University study. The pay gap, maternity and sick leave, healthcare, and professional development are organizational issues that cannot be solved with women just working harder and longer.


Fixing the “broken table”

Harts is advocating for moving beyond talking about the disparities. She wants tangible action and proactive programs and systems created that not only hire women of color, but also invest in them throughout their career.

Related: Women of color are less likely to get patents for their work

Harts’s Women of Color Equity Initiative is working toward boosting the number of women of color who are in management and senior management roles in corporations and nonprofit organizations. Harts is creating a central database of women of color leaders that companies can tap into.

“We sit at a broken table right now . . . in order to assemble it back together, it’s going to take companies to lean in, and it’s going to take women of color to trust those companies to create an inclusive, equitable, and diverse workplace so that they can thrive,” Harts tells Fast Company.

By 2060, women of color will be the majority in America, according to Catalyst, but how are companies preparing now for this future shift? As companies continue to invest in their diversity and inclusion solutions, mechanisms that track the progress of recruiting, retaining, and advancing are still missing.

Related: How this large multi-platform company figured out diversity


“There has to an intentional structure in place to make sure that women of color have an opportunity to advance. You can’t have access without opportunity, and you can’t advance without that opportunity. It goes back to creating structures to dismantle the systemic racism that is embedded in the culture that a lot of people are grappling with,” she says.

With only 3% of the C-suite held by women of color compared to 18% by white women–and a significant departure of women of color leaving corporate America, if systems are not created to hire and advance women of color now, what will our companies look like in the future?

Brittney Oliver is a writer based in Greater Nashville. Over the past three years, Oliver has built her platform Lemons 2 Lemonade to help millennials turn life’s obstacles into career triumphs. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.