Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Credit: World Economic Forum on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–I didn’t think the attention-getting book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by would be for me.

Listening to one of Sandberg’s interviews, I thought, “Here is another wealthy white woman who lives on easy street, so her advice doesn’t apply.”

I was wrong.

The one big message that resonated for me is that women should take charge of our careers, our futures.

My qualification to that: When we can.

Some women cannot take an unpaid sick day or repair a major appliance without going into debt.

For single black women the median wealth is only $5, according to a 2010 report. These are not conditions that allow any of us to take charge or lean in.

But Sandberg’s book did help me take stock of the ways I too have taken charge of my careers and leaned in, at various times. Before I started law school, an assistant dean, a black woman, told me that 1-in-13 black students failed out of law school. I didn’t want to be a statistic. I resolved I’d study hard and work my tail off to earn a degree. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about trusts and estates or property law. My regimen of studying every day before and after classes and very long hours on weekends–and taking Friday nights off–enabled me to graduate in three years.

To pass the bar I dove in again. I immersed myself so deeply I was scared I wouldn’t re-emerge if I failed. So I had to succeed. I attended review courses, studied deep into the night, rarely socialized. I avoided the law school library, worried that other nervous students would disturb my fragile confidence. I passed.

Second Strategy

Another strategy has also worked for me a few times. Sandberg writes, “increasingly, opportunities are not well defined but, instead, come from someone jumping in to do something. That something then becomes his job.”

I took that risk when I left The Legal Aid Society at the age of 30 to pursue my interest in writing and promoting literacy in my community. Today I both write and work with children at a library and in schools.

But when I started this current phase, I had no job lined up, no trust fund, or what Sandberg calls the “right” partner to help pay my rent and student loans. I took part-time positions outside the legal field and lived very simply.

In these tough economic times, I don’t know that I’d repeat those moves. Creating a job in a downsizing economy is tough. Non-Sandberg women are taking on more at work for the same or less pay.

And one “Lean-In” tip disturbs me. Sandberg strongly recommends that women take care in choosing a life partner; someone who wants an equal partnership, thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious, values fairness and expects or “wants” to do “his” share in the home, someone who can “lean in” to their families, with traditional gender roles enforced by people and employers. Sandberg says we need more men to sit at the kitchen table.

While the majority of us marry, there are more black women than black men. Even if more men were available, I don’t know many black men in the financial position to say “Go ahead, baby, do you. I got your back. I can leave work early to be home with the kids.”

The jobless rate for African Americans was over 13 percent in January, way up from 8.5 percent in November 2007, just before the start of the recession. Wages for African American men, meanwhile, are below those of all other groups of men.

Other Obstacles

The majority of black families in my world don’t have it easy, even if there are two parents or adults. There are child care expenses and student loans to pay; family members to help out. And there is the need to play catch up: close the wealth gap. Save for a down payment. Save an emergency fund.

Beyond the obstacle of selecting the right partner, there is the real or imagined need to “stay in our place” so we’re not the “last hired, first fired” statistic, the “angry black woman,” even when all the people promoted are white women and black men.

Sure, black women can ask for raises and promotions. If our supervisors don’t open the door though, it won’t work. It may help to know we tried. But we also know we run the risk of being labeled and made targets of retaliation. We live with these realities.

Somehow I developed some confidence, which is what I think is necessary for leaning in, overcoming the “you’re bossy” wall, “you’re not liked” wall or the fear — and very real — wall of retaliation or being fired.

I’ve come to realize my confidence is motivated by self-preservation and the desire to help my community survive and thrive.

I don’t have children, so I can’t speak personally, but for the moms out there, playing it safe financially–and not leaning in–may be the best bet for the stability of their families.

After reading “Lean In,” I dream of a book about women coping with grittier workplace realities and still managing to try our hardest to be the best employees, mothers, sisters, and friends we can be.

A book, in other words, that would better fit the women who don’t wear Sandberg’s Silicon Valley shoes, those who have to shop for footwear that doesn’t cost half a week’s worth of food shopping or their monthly transportation fare for work.

For More Information:

Buy the Book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead“:


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