What Works for (Non-Rich, Non-White) Women at Work

What could a white female COO whose net worth is more than $1 billion tell a black female writer like me about how to succeed professionally? Fortunately there's a new book that picks up where 'Lean In' left off.

Feb 15, 2014 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

About a decade into working for corporations, newspapers, and in academia, I became aware that there was a major flaw in all of the business advice books directed at women. Generally they all say things like:

"Girl, man up so you can get paid."

"Don't show any boobs at work if you want them to take you seriously."

"Smile: Fewer muscles than frowning and you're likely to get promoted faster."

All this life coaching is generally meant for white women, as is the very popular global bestseller Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I respect Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who tells women to "man up" and not hunker down in the seats near the door when all the men are sitting at the conference table (I've totally done that). But the book's title alone made me bristle. I thought, "I've been Leaning In my whole life."

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Here I am at my TED City talk in September 2013. Photo by Ryan Lash, courtesy of TED


Sandberg is impressive and so are her sales (1.5 million books sold). But Lean In, which is equal parts memoir and manifesto, disregards racial and class differences. What could a woman whose net worth is more than $1 billion tell a black woman about how to succeed in business?

This became more clear when I read the recently published What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know by mother/daughter writers Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey. The Yale-educated team interviewed more than a hundred women and 60 women-of-color scientists. They culled their research to present four patterns that women experience in the workplace, and noted that women of color are often judged by a different standard -- the Double Jeopardy. The Double Jeopardy impacts those of us who are discriminated against based on both race and gender.

Williams and Dempsey explain that women always feel that we have to Prove It Again, that our ideas are often ignored until they come from the mouth of a man, and that women can be serious bitches to one another in the workplace instead of being natural mentors. White women and women of color alike walk a tightrope that requires us to be assertive enough that we are considered ambitious, but feminine enough that we're seen as peers that just happen to be ladies.

After decades of looking for a book that incorporates an array of women and interrogates intersectionality in the workplace, I was as infuriated as I was thrilled to see the experiences of Asian American, Latino and Black women as well as LGBT women treated as if they all face unique challenges in the business world.

"Remember: There's no right way to be a woman," one section reads, following a list of "Badass Women Who Broke the Rules" that includes George Sand, Helen Gurley Brown and Sojourner Truth. "This book is meant to serve as a guide to some of the biases that may affect how people react to you. The advice is geared toward counteracting that if you feel like that's getting in your way. If something else works for you -- get it girl."

I have been working since I was 14 years old. I have been above-average height since second grade, when I learned that wearing shyness on your face as a black woman would later be interpreted as Angry-Looking Black Lady, and wearing your real hair in cornrows (later dreads) was also some kind of code for militancy that I wouldn't learn about until later. I have worked for a number of short dudes, some of whom were Napoleons, pissed off at my height.

But I was often so excited to be earning money that I didn't care about the nuances of office politics. With few exceptions, it didn't matter what I did to get money or what people thought about me at work. I had been homeless and destitute in the past -- having a job was a way to avoid a repeat. Who gave a crap if my boss was mean to me? It seemed inevitable.

I made the most money I've ever made in my life working as an intern on Wall Street, and I would never go back to that kind of crazy -- I did not expect to feel, in the words of a few mentors, like I was working on a plantation.

I don't know if I believe there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women, to quote Madeleine Albright, but maybe there is for some of the people I worked for in investment banking, publishing, journalism and academia. They went out of their way to shame me for wearing pants that were too tight, even when I had no ass to speak of; some of the female bosses, after embracing me onto their team with a welcoming hug, went on to sabotage and undermine my every move.

My decade-long career in newspapers was not much better than what I put up with on Wall Street -- and the pay was nowhere near comparable. After writing a column in San Francisco on Janet Jackson's Super Bowl boobgate, I received in the mail a copy of my column, bearing the words "Nigger Bitch." When I made the mistake of wearing a head wrap in a Texas newsroom, a white male co-worker told me I looked like Aunt Jemima.

To add injury to insult, it was nearly impossible for me and other women journalists, specifically women of color, to write the kinds of stories that would make it to the front page. To this day, women writers across the country have fewer bylines on substantial stories than men. If you want an example, by the way, of how women who Lean In are treated when they're at the helm of news organizations, try Googling the executive editor at the New York Times, Jill Abramson. She is often portrayed in media as a combative, overly emotional basket case.

We have not come a long way, baby. Williams and Dempsey write that as of 2011, only 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women -- 2 women of color, 16 white women, 17 men of color and 465 white men ("that's one table of women in a room packed with 27 tables of men"). To cope, women can use the savvy outlined in What Works for Women..., which notes that the answer is not for women to hear more advice about why they don't negotiate, but for organizations to start leveling the playing field for women so they're not stigmatized for negotiating in the same ways that men do. Women should also remember to network and practice self-care -- to do what we can, and no more. I took that advice when I left newspapers to start working for myself two years ago.

The strategies in What Works for Women at Work have been working for me. What are your go-to books on professional advice? Had any experiences with being treated differently (based on race, gender, sexuality, whatever) at work?

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