When leaning in isn't enough: What I've learned at work as a woman of color

Recent books for women have helped, but we need more advice that takes class and race into account

By Joshunda Sanders

Published February 19, 2014 3:44PM (EST)

Sheryl Sandberg         (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Sheryl Sandberg (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

We're closing in on the anniversary of the publication of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," the ubiquitous women-at-work manifesto penned by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which has sold 1.5 million copies and will also become a movie. And while "Lean In" offers important feedback to women in pithy and useful phrases like "Don't Leave Before You Leave," the book has a bit of a rarefied air to it. It's hard to imagine a single working-class mother, for instance, believing she has the kind of clout and privilege that Sandberg, who is worth more than $1 billion, enjoys. "Lean In" also mentions only a handful of women of color, including Oprah Winfrey and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Leymah Gbowee.

Men and women searching for more diverse sources and research should take note of a new title: "What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know" by the mother and daughter team of law professor Joan C. Williams, who is the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings School of Law and her daughter Rachel Dempsey, currently a student at Yale University. While Williams and Dempsey write about their perspectives and experiences in the workplace, their book is both more inclusive and more extensive than many in the burgeoning What-Women-Should-Do-About-Work-Problems genre. In addition to interviewing 67 women between the ages of 40 and 60 years of age who are part of a group called the New Girls' Network, the authors earned a grant from the National Science Foundation to interview 60 female scientists of color.

"What Works for Women at Work" tackles racial and gender bias in the workplace in ways that Sandberg suggests but doesn't interrogate. It also delves deeper into the repercussions that follow certain workplace behaviors. The book offers women advice for asking for promotions or pay raises, while acknowledging that women who ask for these things can be considered masculine in ways that might undermine their success. I particularly appreciated reading about the toxic competition between women at work that can also hinder the success of women collectively.

But Williams and Dempsey, like Sandberg, are Ivy League-educated women. (In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a Seven Sisters college.) This means that the most visible women writing about how women can thrive at work and ascend to the upper echelons of management are in a totally different economic class than the majority of women who are working in education, trade, transportation, retail, government and other jobs. It means that while Sandberg may feel comfortable bringing all of herself to work, women who don't make millions or anywhere near that will have to do some work to find ways to apply the directives of "Lean In" and "What Works for Women at Work" to their everyday lives.

While class is not emphasized or featured prominently in either of these books, economic status has a huge impact on whether women are willing or able to take risks at work. Generally, women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Things are unsurprisingly worse for women of color: African-American and Hispanic women make 64 cents and 54 cents to every dollar made by a non-Hispanic white man, respectively.

Right now, economic progress also seems concentrated in the ranks of women who have working, well-paid partners -- women who can afford to take risks like leaning so far in that they might fall flat on their fired faces. Were they to get fired, after all, they have the money to fight discrimination and bias -- or to tide them over while they look for another job.

Williams and Dempsey note that whenever women progress in the workplace, they are often required to keep proving that they belong. The way they dress, how and when they speak all require women to walk a tightrope between being viewed as too feminine and being relegated to working on committees and doing other "office housework" or being too masculine and therefore being perceived as "bitches" and subsequently isolated. Lest we believe that all women are allies, the authors highlight the often-unacknowledged conflict between the few women in senior leadership positions and the younger women who could be their heirs but instead are generally viewed as their competition. Finally, they note the myriad ways mothers are explicitly or implicitly penalized for having children.

As a black woman who grew up poor, I was familiar with each of these scenarios. I was surprised, for instance, at how often I was presumed to be a flight risk at work as the women around me had children, even though I was nowhere near considering motherhood.

I applaud Williams and Dempsey for their helpful book, just as I applaud Sandberg for taking on sexist stock photos -- we have to start somewhere.  But I am also hoping for pragmatic and class-inclusive advice books for women. My fantasy work advice book would explain how you manage a budget to juggle family and work obligations while also training to get certified or educated to move up in the working world. It would explain how to navigate intersectionality-based woes without internalizing bias, and how to practice self-care. I'd like a book that acknowledges how white, male and upper-middle class privilege impact working women and for some, keep them from even trying to reach for titles that would pay them more money. I want a book that tells me how to navigate self-promotion as an entrepreneur when doing so is considered awesome when you're a guy and distastefully aggressive when you're a woman.

What I've learned from working for myself, sometimes while working two or three other jobs simultaneously, is that the consequences for bringing all of myself to the workplace are insidious and manifold. It has been helpful to have a broad network of supportive friends, colleagues and family who affirm that the coded ways that people undermine women, our authority and our abilities are not simply part of my imagination but, in fact, real impediments to success. It has also been helpful to disregard concern about being liked, in part because it has always been clear to me that black women who say what they think are almost never considered likable. Remembering that as much as I am deeply devoted to my work, it is not my life, has also helped me keep my sanity.

"What Works for Women at Work" offers some of these tips, too, which makes it as close to my ideal work book as I've read. Even if it doesn't have all the solutions to the clear class and racial problems that women face, it does offer advice that doesn't blame women for ingrained social behaviors like failure to ask for raises --and that's advice worth reading.

Joshunda Sanders

Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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Joan C. Williams Lean In Sheryl Sandberg What Works For Women At Work