My dad sent me a copy of Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In" when I was in my mid-to-late 30s, long after I'd already been using an unnamed policy of doing exactly that. I think the gift was an acknowledgement from a blue-collar guy that he was proud of his daughter being a city-dwelling businesswoman. So from that perspective, I was touched by the gift. But I was mixed on the message itself.
It's a book about women 'forgetting' about the idea of children and career breaks because these things cause women to take their foot off the career accelerator. She urged women to work hard, keep climbing and then if you decide you want flexibility later, work it out then.
As I read it, thinking about my pretty simple upbringing, some of the things she talked about rang hollow to me. I particularly sneered at a suggestion she had about how when she was pregnant and she was at Facebook, she had a parking space right out front, to make it easier for her to physically work for longer. And I thought, you have to be the COO to make that policy. You have to have a business where you can park nearby at all.
That kind of advice, and a lot of the rest of advice she gives, struck me as unrepeatable by the general public. Mortal women who are not COO's can't change policy, they have to work within the establishment, whichever way they decide to lean. She could make a lot of her own case study happen because she had power.
I thought about that power balance from a seniority perspective, and maybe a little bit as someone with a lower socioeconomic background.
But what I didn't think about was the power balance from the perspective of other areas of privilege.
Not only is she speaking from the perspective of a woman with a privileged home life, a successful and flexible company, and a high personal rank -- but she is also speaking as a white woman.
I didn't pick that up. I didn't even think of it. Because I'm a white woman too and no matter how hard you try to be woke, your privilege can always find a way to be invisible to you.
This article about Minda Harts challenging the whole premise of the Sandberg argument really moved me. A woman of colour who is trying to help the world understand why it's not that easy to just lean in and get what you want.
With BAME female representation at senior levels still abysmal, there is no formula of personal effort that a woman from this group can apply to change society enough that they will somehow be the next Sheryl Sandberg.
Because they can't just move up the ranks by trying harder – the establishment structures are too rigid.
Because someone else gets chosen instead as a better 'cultural fit'.
Because the people who make senior appointments just don't see them that way.
Because every day they face discriminations, little and large, that undermine not just their talent and their confidence, but their humanity.
She talks about instead leaning out – by which she means, leaving behind the establishment structures that constantly frustrate progression for women of colour, and creating your own rules as an entrepreneur. With change coming so slowly, setting up your own alternate structure is one way of getting where you need to be.
Minda was born Yassminda Harts, but she felt she had to change her name to make life easier for her colleagues. That just isn't a consideration for people called Heather. And that's a facet of identity that you have to alter, a part of you that you cannot be when you're at work.
Just like we are now much more commonly having a dialogue about sexuality, that people need to be comfortable to be 'out' at work in order to be their whole selves for a better working life, we need to have a dialogue about this too. We need to notice and acknowledge the micro-cuts that we subject people of colour to, that chip away at their chances of success.
Minda tweeted this week about an experience she's just had hearing from someone who clearly doesn't understand the ceiling that exists for black female talent: 'I was on a call yesterday and a woman said.. tell black women to stop leaving 80k a year jobs to go make shea butter'. Just one example of the assumptions that not only degrade and demoralise, but also genuinely hold people back. If you don't see what's wrong with the system, you won't try to change it.
It costs those with privilege nothing to acknowledge that they have it, and that the system is set up to help them. But failure to acknowledge this costs underrepresented groups their voice, their status and their progress. We can start with sharing this story. Send the Fast Company article to a few people, follow or partner with or hire Minda as a consultant, read her book coming out next year – and if you're a recruiter or a business leader, make some conscious efforts to give someone the option of climbing up rather than leaning out.
“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.