Stop Telling Woman of Color to “Lean In”

How often do we continue to hear the message that women and in particular women of color are not getting the opportunities or advancing because they aren’t aggressive enough? That they aren’t “Leaning In”. Lots right? Well that’s wrong!

Leaning in is a concept meant to motivate women to be more aggressive in their professional advancement and more vocal about having an active seat at the table.  For black women this concept is not new for us as we are actually more likely than white women to aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title.

We Don’t Have a Choice

Black women have been “Leaning In” for decades, however, our work and efforts have not been acknowledged as such.  The popular term seems to downplay the effects of racial and gender bias in the workplace.

Historically black women have a longer work history than our counterparts in addition to covering the domestic work at home and even outside of the traditional “work” role; we’ve long held positions of leaderships in our communities (One time for the Church Mothers and Rec Center Directors!).

As young black women continue to break the mold and lead in all demographics as the fastest cohort to open and grow new business as well as achieve advance degrees, we are still being dismissed as not as successful or having the goal posts moved again.   For our sake and sanity, I think it is more important than ever to define what our personal definition of success looks like and let that be the guide for us.

To be honest just like in larger society there are too many systematic barriers in place that prevent us from reaching the top even though its proven that we want those top spots and deserve those top spots off of merit alone.  According to Center of Talent and Innovation black women are:

  • 43% more likely to be confident that they can succeed in a position of power
  • 47% more likely to feel stalled in their careers
  • 53% more likely to feel their talents aren’t recognized by their superiors

However, we are less likely to have a sponsor (someone that advocates for you when the decisions are being made, different from a mentor) than our counterparts, and we are more likely to be recognized for our soft skills (interpersonal) than our hard skills (technical/analytical).

Taking Ourselves Out of the Rat Race

What I urge and encourage my fellow black women to do is really take stock of your career every 2-3 years and make an honest self-assessment of your advancement to date and how you feel about your professional development. Are you being overlooked, taken for granted, are there real opportunities for you, or do you feel as if you are just going through the motions?

We have to know when it’s time to take ourselves out the game (out of their game), or change the play and that can mean a couple of different things. Maybe that company isn’t the right one for you (do not give loyalty to a company that doesn’t deserve it) or maybe the current role isn’t a good fit anymore.  What can we do to truly maximize our skills so that we are fulfilled?  

Burn out is REAL, and while we are always being acknowledged as the strong ones, burn out is very prevalent in millennial women of color.  We have to make sure that while we are setting our goals it is not at the expense of our health (mental and physical). No job will be perfect but we owe it to ourselves to not be taken advantage of, overworked or overlooked all in the name of playing the game.

I’ve been in the corporate world for over 10 years and you would think it gets easier (it doesn’t). I am constantly taking stock of myself and how I feel about what I’m doing.  Since graduating college I saw myself on one path and one path only and that was straight to the top. I told myself if I worked harder than everyone (work/life balance was a foreign concept), made my accomplishments known I would reap all if the rewards, and guess what that didn’t always happen.

It was a hard lesson for me to learn until I realized that my current definition of success was not the same as my young 20 year old self and that realization provided me with a reenergized spirit and a new and different level of comfort.  As long as I kept creating my own rules I would be okay.


Kimberly hails from the boogie down Bronx and currently works as a senior analyst at a prominent NYC Financial Services firm.  She is dedicated to advancing opportunities for young women of color in her field, in addition to promoting financial literacy to urban professionals. She is an advocate of black women representation. When not working she likes so spend any off time surrounded by her family and close circle of friends.  

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Agreed. I get this. Im also surprised she didnt dig into the notion that black women fall back because they dont want to be seen as angry black women so the aggressiveness has to be played diffrently.

    1. Thanks for you me comment Tyana, yes you’re correct i didn’t touch on that specifically and it’s not because i don’t see it as an issue, i was just trying to be as succinct as possible. With all of the issues that specifically impact WOC i could’ve wrote 10 articles lol. Unfortunately we are stifled in the way we express ourselves and ultimately advocate for ourselves in ways our counterparts aren’t and it can be exhausting and demoralizing. We are faced with so many biases (unconscious and conscious) that this also factors into whether or not we want to continue to play the game. Hopefully there will be a shift that occurs where we start creating our own rules to the game while maintaining our integrity and authenticity and not getting caught up in the burn and churn culture.

  2. Love this read. I had to repost on IG. It so hard to defend yourself at work to the comments you need to smile more. You need to engage more with personal things. You are such a hard worker but your facial expressions (yes) don’t best representation the company in a positive way. If I heard it once I heard it a million times. You got to learn how to play the game and not be so honest. I don’t look like you and that’s it. Stop it already, I’m the closest to a black female manager we’ve had at my job since the 6 years and 1 month since I worked there and this is all I hear. Even when I smile more and participate in silly office politics. But I can only change so much before I’m not me. That I can not do. Thanks for sharing this article.

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