THE UGLY TRUTH
IN 2013, I read this book that I had heard so much about. There was finally a book for women that would address
what it’s like for us in the workplace. It was a huge topic of conversation at the water cooler and at dinner with friends. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about Lean In. Companies across the country even started lean-in circles—groups of women who would come together to discuss goals, challenges, anything of the sort. It is safe to say that it was something like a revolution, and I wanted a piece of the action. I had never seen anything like it! Lean In sparked a national conversation. Who the heck is this Sheryl Sandberg lady? I thought. I wanted to shake her hand, and I hadn’t even read her book yet. As an avid reader of everything from Real Housewives memoirs to James Baldwin, I went to get my copy and started plowing through it.
But after reading, I felt confused. And I didn’t feel the way many of my white counterparts did. They felt inspired and empowered, you know how white people do, that Hell Yeah! type of energy. Something was missing for me. This new manifesto was encouraging women to speak up. But black women and many working-class women were already doing this, oftentimes in the face of opposition and where there was no room for advancement. I remember wanting to shake the book in the hope that some advice would fall out that addressed the differences faced by women of color in the workplace and how leaning in isn’t a wash, rinse, repeat equation for us. If I leaned in any more, my face would be on the damn table. Listen, many of the book’s basics like networking and advocating for yourself—all
great advice. But networking and advocating for yourself look very different at work for women of color, especially if you are the only person of color in the office. And not to mention, if you didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school like Sandberg, your network might look different. What does this white lady know about struggling at work? She wrote a career book from a place of privilege, and she already had a seat at the table, so leaning in was easier. Her feelings were valid, to be clear, and I don’t want to take that away from her. But while she was pissed about not having a prime parking spot during her pregnancy, black and brown women were dealing with systemic racism
that prevents us from using our voice to speak on subject matters like support for working mothers or the wage gap, because we often aren’t yet at “the table.” Imagine me busting down Sergey Brin’s door at Google and demanding new workplace policies. He would probably call security. Who is this crazy black woman leaning in!
And equally as disappointing was the fact that most white women didn’t even have enough emotional intelligence to realize that this book didn’t touch on race and the inequalities that women who look like me face, yet they wanted everyone to read it in the women’s book club! Lorraine Hansberry said it best, “The whole realm of morality and ethics is something that has escaped the attention of women, by and large. And it needs the attention of intellectual women most desperately.” The fact that Sandberg’s entire book was written from a place of privilege absolutely floored me. Call me cynical, but I would have liked to face some of the problems she wrote about! Instead, I was battling two white colleagues who were making work less than bearable for me, and I was the only black woman on our team. Let me tell you another part of the struggle: never reading about women in business who look like you or reading statistics that include you. So yes, you have no idea how disappointed I was after reading Lean In. I was hoping this career book would be different from the others, that I would finally feel seen. It was just another career book by a white woman that hit the bestsellers list, talking about white women sh––! I placed this book next to the countless career books written by white women like Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel that ignore my experiences in the workplace, give no thought to race and access, or add little side notes so they don’t forget about the black girls (an afterthought).
I know I might get some flack for stating what is already obvious to women of color, but here is some breaking news: we are no longer satisfied with reading your white women tales from the career crypt. Our experiences are different, and it’s time we discuss them. All women don’t have the same experiences in the workplace; yep, I said it! And even though we have hit movies like Hidden Figures, it doesn’t feel good to get treated like a hidden figure at work. Just because white people might not see us doesn’t mean we don’t add value to the bottom line each day. And just because we don’t hold many leadership positions like our white counterparts doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to lead. Women of color are like the heart and kidneys of the workplace—you can’t function without us! We don’t need more career advice from white women telling us what we need to do to advance our careers if we just work a little harder or how it’s the white man’s fault. Those are just more sad love songs that I can’t take hearing any more. Well, as far as I’m concerned, Time’s Up on the narrative that all women experience the same sh— at work. Yes, “women” as a whole do not have parity, but often when we discuss women in the workplace, it’s white women most folks are referring to. It’s a sad fact that women of color are supposed to always buy these career books and pretend it’s all good! I want to know when was the last time Sheryl, Sophia, or Lois read a career book about a woman of color and her experience at work? In the famous words of comedian Katt Williams, “Don’t worry, I’ll wait!”
I had to finally come to terms with my bitterness and make it better—that’s what I’m doing with this book. Career solutions for black and brown women are not one size fits all, and I would like for people to stop acting like they are. I think it’s safe to say that we are fed up as a whole and tired of fitting into your box; it’s time you heard about what “leaning in” is like for women of color. We want to read about our workplace experiences and nod our heads up and down. And we sure as hell ain’t taking any more advice from a white woman who claims to empower women when women of color make up less than 5 percent of the workforce at her company and then publicly states how she is struggling to find black and brown women to put in leadership positions and hopes to do better next time. Do better now! I guess I’ve proved my point: Leaning in doesn’t work the same for us, and we don’t need Sheryl speaking for us anymore; we will take it from here, sis!
Now I know what you’re thinking: sounds like another angry black woman. Well, the National Center for Educational
Studies says that I am part of the most educated group in the United States, and yet there seem to be permanent barriers in place to prevent women like me from advancing in our careers. You would be angry too, boo. Our good friends at Leanin.org put out a report in 2018 stating that women of color hold less than 11 percent of management roles, less than 8 percent of senior management roles, and less than 4 percent of executive roles in US Fortune 500 companies. How would you feel obtaining all of this education and still not having access to more leadership opportunities—and sometimes we aren’t even part of the interview process! How would you feel if you never read
or saw your stories told in the workplace? Not in The Help and mammy type of ways; we’ve seen enough of those stereotypes!
It is time to dispel the myths that all things are created equal at work, that if you just work harder, you can get your
seat at the table. Well, black and brown women have worked hard since we stepped foot on American soil, and some are the hardest-working women I know, but “hard work” has not done us any favors! Only a select few, and I mean select (less than 4 percent), have reached the leadership level of a Fortune 500 company. And that’s just one of the ugly truths. We have checked all of the boxes that we were told would get us ahead, and guess what? Not much has changed! There is no shortage of black and brown talent that could fill those leadership positions. Women of color make up almost 14 percent of the population, and companies can’t seem to find one or two women to recruit, retain, or advance? The lack of representation in the working world at the highest levels is unacceptable. And, let’s be clear, it’s not because there aren’t any successful black and brown women in business. We just aren’t being elevated to the
top, and our experiences are not being amplified so that we know we’re not alone. We want to read about the experiences of women like us. It’s one of the main reasons writing The Memo was important to me: for us, by us!
And to add insult to injury, most of the successful businesswomen that we read about are white. How can you be
what you can’t see? As much as we know about Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, we should also know about the Stacy Brown-Philpots and Ursula Burnses of the business world.
Ask five white women to name five successful women of color in business and I guarantee they couldn’t, but ask five women of color to name five successful white women in business and they could even add one for extra credit. Thank God many of us had Mary Jane Paul, Annalise Keating, and Joan Clayton, fictitious black women to look up to on television, or we might not know what a professional working woman of color who wasn’t a reality TV star looks like. I believe one of the main reasons the movie Black Panther was a hit is that people of color finally had something for us, by us! And the ripple effect this movie will have on young girls who saw the character Shuri will catapult hundreds of black and brown girls into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. There is power and beauty in seeing what you can become!
I spent much of my career in corporate America and the nonprofit sector as the only black woman or one of a few
women of color in the companies and organizations I worked for. And I had no mentors or sponsors that looked like me. For years, I started to question if women of color even wanted more out of their careers because I never saw any in my industry. And my experiences of being the “only one” were happening in even more isolation because I had no one to talk to about them. I spent many years of my career wondering if my coworkers were being racist and preventing me from moving forward or if I was making this up in my head. If someone said something inappropriate to me, then it was up to me to be strong and not take what they said out of context. “Oh Minda, you know I didn’t mean any harm!” The last time I checked, no one was cutting me an extra check to be “strong” at work!
My white counterparts would never understand the isolation I was experiencing. This is just one of the many forms of mental gymnastics that women of color go through at work because no one ever bothers to address our experiences. Showing up every day as the minority has never been easy, but as women of color we keep pushing forward and believing that if we work harder, maybe a seat will open up for us. As I said before, we can no longer subscribe to this outdated mindset; we are ready to build our own tables, sit at yours, and create our own place
settings if need be. The bottom line is, we are coming for those seats, like it or nah!
ABOUT THE BOOK
The Memo is the much-needed career advice guide for women of color specifically, finally ending the one-size-fits-all approach of business books that lump together women across races and overlook the unique barriers to success for women of color.
In a charismatic and relatable voice, Minda Harts brings her entrepreneurial experience as CEO of The Memo to audio, as well as her past career life as a fundraising consultant to top colleges across the country. With wit and candor, Harts begins by acknowledging the ugly truths that keep women of color from getting the proverbial seat at the table in corporate America: micro-aggressions, systemic racism, white privilege, etc. Harts validates that women aren’t making up the discrimination they feel, even if it isn’t always overt. From there, she gives straight talk on how to address these issues head-on and provides a roadmap to help women of color and their allies make real change to the system. With chapters on network-building, office politics, money, and negotiation, this overview covers all the basics that any good business book should. But through the author’s lens, it offers support and long-overdue advice particularly for women of color.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Minda Harts is a author, professor, podcaster and speaker, helping women of color secure their seat at the table. Harts is a California girl, who grew up in Chicago and today calls New York City home. She holds a Bachelor’s in Communications and a Master’s in Business Administration. Harts was also blessed to have been featured in Forbes, CNBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Fast Company. Learn more about her and her work at http://mindaharts.com/ and visit on social media at Twitter and Instagram handles: @mindaharts.