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Angélica Pérez-Litwin, PhD Headshot

Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean in" Message Not Enough for Women, Especially Professional Latinas

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At the age of 31, armed with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, I joined a research center at a well-respected university hospital in New York City. The center was desperately looking for a Latina Ph.D to resurrect and direct a research clinic focusing on ethnic minority populations. As a confident woman who knew the value I brought to the center, I successfully negotiated my starting salary and presented a wish list for professional growth. My assertiveness carried throughout the six years I was there.

I did what Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, encourages women to do in her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In a self-proclaimed feminist movement to address current gender disparities in leadership, Sandberg aims to galvanize women with a call to action to lean in and step up in the workplace.

I did step up. I leaned in at staff team meetings, sat at the table and contributed to the dialogue. I explored and pursued research opportunities. I asked for mentorship. I scheduled meetings with key players, and asked for their support and guidance in moving my research career forward.

But leaning in has its limitations for women in the workplace, and especially for Latinas.

When Latinas lean in at work, they are often examined through a lens blurred with ethnic prejudices, and socially prescribed roles and expectations. God forbid she has a Spanish accent...

More than once, a lost patient or hospital staff wandering down the hall came to my office door to ask for direction. "Are you the secretary?" they would ask. "No, I'm Dr. Perez, how can I help you?" I'd reply. My title was often met by a subtle facial expression of surprise.

My bachelor's degree from Columbia University and Ph.D. has raised questions on the role that affirmative action must have played in my academic achievements. In her memoir, Justice Sonia Sotomayor describes a moment when her academic merits were credited to affirmative action, despite graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University. This perpetual attribution of Latinas' achievements to tokenism is real in the workplace, and underestimates what accomplished Latinas bring to the table.

An assertive Latina at work risks being seen as "difficult" or "opinionated." A confident voice level makes her "confrontational" or "loud." We are expected to be nice and supportive, and less so leaders. These social perceptions and ethnic biases form an important part of the organizational barriers that women, and especially ethnic/racial women, face in the workplace. This, of course, is in addition to the organizational culture and policies that are blatantly gender biased when it comes to promoting women leadership.

I sincerely applaud Sandberg for taking on this mission and initiating this important conversation. I appreciate her reminder to lean in, but I want to remind Sandberg that most women do lean in at work. Any vacillation she has observed among her female colleagues has more to do with leaning in and getting hit by a glass wall (i.e., organizational barriers), than by their lack of motivation to step up. How long can we lean in and bang ourselves on a glass wall?

Many of us do sit at the table, raise our hands, voice our opinions, and ask for a salary raise. But women who negotiate face a high penalty, according to Bowles' study, which explains why women are less likely than men to negotiate their starting salaries. When women negotiate, both men and women are less likely to want to work with or hire them. The social expectation is for women to be accommodating and not overly-demanding. For Latinas, these social expectations are higher.

Unless companies and organizations begin to implement major structural and policy changes designed to promote leadership among women, the idea that we can control our fate in the workplace will remain an illusion.

The solution to this issue is not complicated. Sandberg's Lean In Circles are part of the solution in helping women navigate their careers in the workplace. But Sandberg's message needs to be more robust and comprehensive. Companies need to do their part.

How Companies Can Lean In and Promote Women Leadership

The following recommendations are adapted from Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, coauthors of Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide.

  1. Since men are more likely than women to negotiate or ask for opportunities and rewards, companies need to pay attention to who initiates negotiations and adjust their decision-making accordingly. Handing out assignments and opportunities should be based more on who is most likely to get the job done best, than who is assertive enough to ask. A more democratic way to make opportunities available should be in place.
  2. Women need mentoring. Assigning women to a trusted superior for advice, guidance and hidden opportunities in the work place, cultivates leadership potential and levels the field. This is especially important for professional Latinas, who often are the first generation in their families to enter and navigate professional and corporate spaces.
  3. Raising organizational awareness among all employees on gender and cultural differences in responses and behaviors is valuable. Increased awareness will help reduce differential bias that can deter progress for specific employee groups.
  4. Overall, companies need to become more hospitable for women by expanding career opportunities beyond those that tend to favor men (e.g., the old boys club networking after hours; frequent traveling), and directly offer women solid career opportunities, e.g., invitation to carry out large scale projects, or participation in a think tank group with influential key players.

Sheryl Sandberg is well positioned to revolutionize the experience of women in the workplace, but her call to action will need to include her fellow top executives and CEOs at Fortune 500 companies to lean in and do their part. In the meantime, I plan to create a Lean In Circle for Latinas, to share our stories, learn together and support one another. Intertwined within these conversations will be the acknowledgement that companies have some work to do, too.