Michelle Obama On Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’: ‘That Sh*t Doesn’t Work All The Time’

Written by Ann Brown

Former First Lady Michelle Obama cursed during a recent stop on her book tour and the Internet is all aflutter, but behind the shock, Obama was addressing an important issue.

While on stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the last stop on the highly successful tour for her memoir, “Becoming,” Obama discussed the struggle women have balancing family and career.


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 “Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all. It ain’t equal,” she said. “I tell women that whole ‘you can have it all’ — mmm, nope, not at the same time, that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in because that s*** doesn’t work.”

Catching herself, Obama apologized. “I forgot where I was for a moment!”

“I’m back now,” Obama said, NPR reported. She rephrased her assessment. “But sometimes that stuff doesn’t work.”

What Obama was talking about was a philosophy held by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. In a 2013 book called “Lean In”, Sandberg urged women to be more assertive and less passive in the workplace.

Michelle Obama
Former first lady Michelle Obama, left, is interviewed by Elizabeth Alexander during the “Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama” at Barclays Center in Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

One of the major problems with “Lean In” is that often times it doesn’t work for Black women. Black women, according to a new study, often find their careers stifled by their own managers, who are more critical of their work than their non-Black peers.

“Lean In” has not helped women of color close the pay gap. Nor has it helped women of color ascend to the C-suite, where there is still major underrepresentation of women of color in the upper echelons of corporate America. In fact, women of color hold 3 percent of C-suite positions at 132 North American companies, compared to 18 percent by white women. 

“I didn’t see myself in (“Lean In”) and I wasn’t represented,“ said Minda Harts, founder and CEO of The Memo, which aims to help women of color climb the corporate ladder, in a Fast Company, interview. “I had to make people in the workplace feel comfortable with how I show up to work.  Through the years, that’s been beneficial on my career trajectory, but it hinders who I was able to be in the workplace. We have to show up and choose which route we’re going to go to make others feel comfortable … but what (Sandberg) did do is leave the door open for us to now talk about why this didn’t work for (women of color).”

Michelle Obama
Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during the “Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama” at Barclays Center in Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Harts added: “(Lean In) was heavily skewed toward a white woman’s experience in the workplace. Women of color and working-class women have been leaning in since day one, and when you have systemic systems in place that are not set up to advance people of color—women of color in particular—then it’s hard to lean in when you’re invisible.”

It’s not that Black women don’t aspire to be in the corner office. They do more than their peers. In a 2018 LeanIn.org survey of women in the workplace, 48 percent of women of color said they aspire to leadership positions at their company, compared with 37 percent of white women, the Huffington Post reported. Only 27 percent of white women want to be a top executive, compared with 41 percent of women of color. Yet white women land in those slots more often.

“In our research, we find Black women are nearly 3 times more likely than white women to say they aspire to a powerful job with a prestigious title,” said Tai Wingfield, one of the report’s authors, in a Huffington Post report.  Wingfield is the senior vice president of communications for the Center for Talent Innovation and managing director at Hewlett Consulting Partner.

Because of the lack of movement in their corporate careers, Black women have turned to entrepreneurship.

In 2018 alone, there are 2.4 million African-American and 2.1 million Latina women-owned businesses, representing 164-percent and 172-percent growth respectively in the last 10 years, according to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report, Fast Company reported.

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About Ann Brown
Ann Brown has been a freelance writer for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in CocoaFab, Black Enterprise, Essence, MadameNoire.com, New York Trend, Upscale, Moguldom, AFKInsider, The Network Journal, Playboy, Africa Strictly Business, For Harriet, Pathfinders, Black Meetings & Tourism, Frequent Flier, Girl, Honey, Source Sports, The Source, Black Radio Exclusive, and Launch. She studied journalism at New York University and has her B.A. Born in New York, Ann lived in Praia, Cabo Verde, for nearly a decade. She created “An American In Cabo Verde,” a Facebook community.