Lean In, the term coined by Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, is used to describe the act of a woman exerting herself at work — “leaning in” to ensure her voice is heard and so she does not miss out on opportunities for advancement. In Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sandberg famously said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” (Sandberg, 2013). While this may be true, it overlooks the fact that when women like Sandberg say “women”, what they really mean is “White women”. Regardless of your profession, if you are a woman of color, you have been there — you have been dismissed, you have been discounted, you have been overlooked; however what the act of leaning in does not acknowledge is that for women of color, the dismissals, discounting and overlooking, is often done by other women — particularly White women.
The intersection of race and gender is often a double edge sword of discrimination for Black women and other women of color, especially in the workplace, where we face discrimination and hostility for no reason besides the color of our skin and our anatomy. At work, women of color face bias from men as well as from other women, particularly White women, who often view us as outsiders not to be included in the sisterhood and comradery they share with other White women. Have you ever had a tense conversation with a White woman at work and all of a sudden, her White tears begin to fall and you suddenly become the office villain? In most cases when this occurs, the Black woman is simply “leaning in” — she is exerting herself in the workplace. However, when Black women “lean in”, too often we are kicked out — left socially isolated and ostracized as the “angry Black woman”.
In the workplace, Black women and other women of color constantly have our credentials and levels of experience questioned and minimized. Despite the steps we take to prove ourselves, i.e. earning a college degree (or a second or third advanced degree) and proving ourselves capable of doing our job, we still face what can seem like insurmountable bias at work. However, through it all, and day after day, we show up to work and we still lean in, even when we know doing so could get us kicked out.
For Black women and other women of color, leaning in can have major professional consequences. As a Black woman, I have leaned in at work and it has led to me being called an “angry Black woman”. It is easy for those who do not know, understand, or respect us to reduce us to the “angry Black woman” or some other derogatory term whenever we voice our opinion in the workplace. Sadly, women of color often internalize these types of labels which gives way for others to mischaracterize our strength, determination, and passion and use it to kick us out of places and spaces where our voices need to be heard. When we lean in, or exert ourselves at work, too often we are kicked out — labeled as difficult or angry, and left feeling undervalued and unwanted at work.