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Women Don’t Need to Lean In. Leaders Do.

The advice for women to “lean in” never resonated with me.

I was always an ambitious, confident person, in my eyes. I was proud of my academic achievements and work experiences. I didn’t feel like the biggest challenge to my career was a lack of confidence or leaning in – quite the opposite, I wanted to stretch myself and pursue big projects and assignments.

I was pretty sure I had always been “leaning in”. So why did my corporate work environment feel so hostile? Why was I, the only woman of color on the teams I worked on, the most frequent target of bias?

I knew something was missing from the “lean in” movement that began after Sheryl Sandberg published her book, Lean In, in 2013.

So I checked in with other ambitious women of color like me, some who had gone through rigorous academic training and other impressive work experiences, and others who had a different life path but all had incredible grit and resilience. Across the board, we found again and again that leaning in was not where we were falling short.

You can probably anticipate the “twist”: our challenge had nothing to do with our individual behavior, and everything to do with facing systemic bias and discrimination.

Whether it manifested in what hair and clothing was considered “professional,” or being repeatedly passed over for promotions and leadership opportunities, the fact remained that for women of color, “leaning in” does nothing to remove the systemic obstacles stacked against us.

And when women of color do “lean in”, we’re often ignored or met with harsh pushback. In fact, some of the “lean in”-style advice given to women, such as “negotiate harder” or “be more confident” or “fake it till you make it,” has been found to be detrimental for women’s careers.

Here’s some good news: We’ve made progress as a community in our understanding of systemic bias since 2013. Just one (symbolic, at least) example took place in 2020, when both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris spoke the words “systemic racism” in their acceptance speeches after winning the US presidential election.

But at least one problem from back in 2013 continues to this day, which is that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – especially corporate efforts – often implicitly centers white women.

I understand that the message to lean in resonated with some professional, white women. But closer scrutiny reveals that systemic bias also negatively impacts white women, as well as men of color and many more individuals with historically underestimated identities.

That’s why I have no doubt: we all stand to gain by centering DEI efforts around the experiences of women of color. The historical oppression of women of color is mighty, because of the two marginalized identities that we carry: gender and race. Women of color experience many more challenges and obstacles to progress in the workplace than our male and white peers.

When we solve for those challenges and obstacles, we ensure a more equitable and inclusive playing field for all candidates.

If you’re reading this far, here’s actionable advice for you: When you heard feedback that a woman you work with lacks “confidence/ambition/grit/leadership/leaning in” pause and instead ask: “Does she really lack ____, or is our measure of what it looks like biased?”

I promise, it helps, shift your view.

“Lean in”, as a catchphrase and call to action, had its moment. And now? The moment is over.

Instead, let’s focus on the movement for leaders to lean in to undoing systemic bias and racism and creating inclusive workplaces for all.

I want to hear from you: Did the #LeanIn movement help you or leave you out? And if you were in charge, what catchphrase would you choose for today’s movement to dismantle structural bias, and center the experiences of women of color? I’d love to hear your ideas!


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