In an exclusive excerpt from Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: For Graduates, Ariel investments President Mellody Hobson shares key lessons on how embracing your authentic identity can provide a foundation for professional success and personal growth.
Recently a woman stopped me at a conference and said, “I heard you speak about ten years ago and you said something that completely blew me away.” Obviously I was intrigued. She continued, “You were on a panel and proclaimed, ‘I feel bad for White women.’ Everyone in the room stiffened. Then you explained, ‘As Black women, we know from early childhood that we are going to be discriminated against. It is a fact that runs through most of our lives. So when we get to corporate America, there are no surprises for us. White women, however, are in shock.’ ”Sheryl writes that she graduated from college believing that equality would be achieved in our generation. I was raised to know we still had a long way to go. I remember coming home from a birthday party where I was the only Black kid invited and the first question my mother asked was, “How did they treat you?” I responded, “Why would they treat me differently?” And she said, “They’re not always going to treat you well.” I was 7. My mother was ruthlessly realistic.
The Third Rail
I understand why the White women at a conference stiffen when I point out this difference. Gender in the workplace is a difficult topic. Complicating it further with race makes it that much more challenging. Despite the breakthrough election of President Obama, race in America remains a controversial and historically shameful issue. So if you’re trying to succeed in the professional world, the last thing you’re supposed to do is raise this taboo subject. It’s the conversational equivalent of the third rail—the effect is shock followed by a long silence. Many of Sheryl’s friends advised her not to speak out about gender, insisting it would kill her career. Many of my friends shared a similar concern. One practically grabbed me by the lapels and implored me not to get sucked into “the race thing.” She worried that I’d come across as one-dimensional, where all roads lead back to prejudice. And yet I feel compelled to speak out because my mother’s question still hangs in the air: How did they treat you? Over my 22 years in the workplace, I have encountered some recurrent themes and battled some stubborn biases. I do not pretend to speak for all women of color. No one person can speak for all. We are each unique…which is why it is so wrong to be lumped together by stereotypes or viewed with narrowed expectations based on color and gender.
Closing the Achievement Gap
All women struggle, but women of color must overcome “double jeopardy,” the one-two punch of sexism and racism. The achievement gap between women and men is even larger in the African-American and Latino communities than it is in the White community.The educational gap between men and women is more pronounced among African-Americans and Latinos with women earning even more degrees relative to men. Yet this educational achievement is not translating into higher pay or greater leadership roles. For every dollar a Caucasian man earns inthe United States, Caucasian women earn 78 cents, African-American women earn 64.5 cents and Latina women earn just 54 cents. Of the Fortune 500 only six companies have a Black CEO and only one is a woman. Seventy percent of corporate boards of directors are White men and 30 percent of Fortune 250 companies don’t have a Black board member. This matters because there is a direct correlation between board diversity and diversity in the executive ranks. Only two publicly traded companies are chaired by a Black woman. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, is one. I am the other. I have always been ambitious—and I say that with pride. I am the youngest of six kids raised by a single mother who married at 19 and had four children by 24. I was not planned; my oldest sister is more than two decades older than me and my closest siblingis nine years older. Although I have my father’s name, I never really knew him and my parents never married. I adore my mother for the unconditional love and encouragement she offered along with her realism. When I was 5, I wondered out loud about what presents Santa might bring me and was informed point-blank, “Mommyis Santa.” Years later, when I asked my mother why she didn’t attend PTA meetings like the other moms, she responded, “Your mom doesn’t have that luxury.” Still my mother remained optimistic. As often as she told me that “life isn’t fair,” she also told me, “You can do anything.” She was extraordinarily industrious and would always wake up before sunrise. She would then rouse me, saying, “If you sleep past 6 a.m., life will pass you by.”
(To this day I am my mother’s daughter, often rising by 4 a.m.) Her own options were limited both by her circumstances and choices. She went into the real estate business, converting old buildings into condominiums, but her work ethic and gut instincts were not enough to drive success. Sometimes we lived in apartments in downtown Chicago close to one of the country’s best public grade schools that I was fortunate to attend. We were frequently evicted and when things got really rough, we would move to the South Side, living in partially completed apartments—isolated to a room where we had to heat water for baths on hot plates. While my childhood was often unsettling, it was not as difficult as some. School provided a tremendous stability for me. I was good at it, too. Even in the hardest classes up against the top students, I excelled. I had to. One thing I have learned is that there is little tolerance for error if you’re female…and zero tolerance if you’re a woman of color. That’s why when one of us achieves, we crush it.
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