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Leaning in—why are we trying to kill it

There have been a number of articles and commentary negating the “Lean In” concept by Sheryl Sandberg that have left me wondering why we are trying to kill the concept and whether there is only one way of defining the concept of Lean In?

Some articles, such as “Why leaning in has not worked for women of color,” says that the concept, as described in the Lean In book, only applies and works for white women in the workplace leaving women of color out of the equation.  Others commentators, such as Katherine Goldstein on NPR’s On-Point national broadcast “It’s Not Always Enough to Lean In: Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg and the Workplace” says the concept, even with tools and acknowledgment of the importance of speaking up, when this formula is not successful for women, “it has led women to internalize their own discrimination, and say, ‘I must’ve not done this right.’’’  Many people were “high-fiving” when former First Lady Michelle Obama, during one of her book tour events, said, “That Lean In s**t doesn’t always work!”  Most recently, an article by Caitlin Gibson, from the Washington Post, “The end of leaning in: How Sheryl Sandberg’s message of empowerment fully unraveled” says that the Lean In movement and concept is officially dead.   Really?  Dead?  Well it’s not dead for me, a Latina woman, and I’m sure, for many other women, who benefited from just the simple idea, that leaning in, gave us permission, for the first time, that we not only should, but had a duty to learn to speak up and advocate for ourselves. 

The questions that come to mind after reading these articles and opinions include—Why are we trying so hard to kill this concept that has empowered so many women? Is it about the concept or is it that the critics are expressing a dislike for Sheryl Sandberg? Should I not Lean In at all, because corporate infrastructures may not be set up to provide me the opportunity to succeed?  If I try to Lean In, and it doesn’t work, should I just give up or just not try at all? Do I really believe that Lean In means to have it all, and do I want it all? Did Sheryl Sandberg really ever say that we could have it all?  Am I in this all by myself or do I need a community to achieve what Lean In advocates?

What does Lean In mean to me-a Latina woman?

Now, I do believe some of the arguments have merit and it definitely opens up further discussion for us to have on the subject of women in the workplace, women in leadership positions, gender wage gap and much more.    But the most important discussion that has come out of reading these commentaries and opinions, is that I need to define for myself, what Lean In means to me, and how I can best use the practice for myself.

I candidly admit that I remain a fan of Sheryl Sandberg, her book and the theme of Lean In.   For me, the concept of Lean In, as a Latina woman, opened up a whole new world where I was able to give myself permission to become more vocal and visible in the workplace.  It helped me realize, for the first time, that as a woman I put up barriers for myself all of the time, such as undervaluing my skills, not taking risks, and not communicating or advocating my value to the world often and articulately.  I remember not applying for a job, at the very same time I was reading “Lean In,” and I realized I didn’t apply for the job for the very same reasons Sheryl was mentioning in the book (Chapter 4, “It’s a Jungle Gym, not a Ladder”) —that was, as Oprah says, an “a-ha” moment for me!

Additionally, it also helped me to do some additional self-reflection on the cultural barriers I grew up with as a Latina woman—be humble, don’t brag, do good work and people will notice—that definitely made speaking up for myself and communicating my value much more difficult.  Even though I came from highly educated, immigrant parents, who were very successful in their own businesses, who instilled a sense of self-confidence in my brother and me, they didn’t grow up in the U.S., so the American values of self-advocacy, confidence to communicate your value (without feeling like you were bragging), and questioning authority, didn’t come natural to them, and thus, were not necessarily instilled in us growing up.  (Hey, I thought, all it took for me to climb the corporate ladder was to do good work and someone would notice!).  So the book Lean In, for me, provided the tools but most important the push to start my journey of self-advocacy and advocacy for other women (especially Latina women). As well as, it opened my eyes to the idea that the focal point of self-advocacy was to actively own and manage my personal brand, which eventually led me to write my first book “Take Charge of Your Brand.”

So back to my original question– how do I define Lean In and what am I going to do about it? For me, the practice of Lean In has been picking and choosing different aspects that apply to me at different times in my life and career. The concept of Lean In, generally, means more than just having it all.  For me, it’s about learning how to stand up for yourself, learning to how to promote yourself without guilt, self-awareness of my own cultural and gender barriers, that self-advocacy and promotion has to be intentional and consistent, and as I succeed, I have a responsibility to give back, and share with other women my formula for success. 

My hope is that, on this journey, we can each find a community and role models to help guide and mentor us. For me, and about 900 other women worldwide, communities such as Lean In Latinas and the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley (300+ member strong in Silicon Valley) provide me with an opportunity to mentor, be a student, and organizer. I may define and embrace leaning in differently than some of the articles and opinions I shared above, but we do have many commonalities, including, that it is imperative that we work together and organize to one, change corporate infrastructures to help women succeed, two, close the gender wage gap, and three, put more women in leadership positions. Including, I believe, as we discuss and write about this subject, that it also includes an immense responsibility to give back, and help other women (continue to) find their unique path to Lean In.