(The Root) — In a notable choice by an executive and author whose message about leadership has largely skirted challenges specific to women of color, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg chose Washington, D.C.'s Howard University as the site of the launch of her LeanIn.org campus initiative.
Sandberg, author of the best-seller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, announced in remarks at the historically black college's School of Business Executive Lecture Series on Monday night, "I'm launching the LeanIn.org campus program right here, right now."
LeanIn.org, of which she is founder and board chair, is an organization billed as "the next chapter" of Lean In. It facilitates the formation of 10-member groups of professional women who support each other in making career moves that reflect the book's advice. The new campus program will bring that effort to colleges, in a push that will include virtual appearances by Sandberg herself.
"This is the only one I'm doing in person," she said at Howard.
"You," she told the auditorium of business-suit-clad students — mostly women, but at least a quarter of them African-American men — "are the leaders we have all been waiting for."
After the release of Lean In, critics asked whether the text's perspective was elitist, whether the experience of women of color was adequately addressed and whether black women — who've historically had to work outside the home in much larger numbers than have white women — even needed advice on how to "lean in" at all.
That skepticism lingers. "Don't think we all fall for it," one reader responded to The Root's tweet about the launch of the campus initiative.
"My work has centered largely on women. I come to this with a gender point of view, and that will be largely what I talk about today," Sandberg said in a disclaimer at the beginning of her remarks. "But everything I talk about is also true of any group that has historically not been in power."
The bulk of her speech covered the basics of her women-in-the-workplace manifesto: gender inequality in positions of power; how sexist stereotypes about appropriate behavior can unfairly manifest in likability and performance reviews; research showing that women underestimate their capabilities and qualifications; and the importance of equal division of domestic labor between men and women ("If you want to do something nice for your wife or girlfriend," she said in what's become one of her signature lines, "don't buy flowers. Do laundry!").
But there were also nods to racial bias. "I wrote Lean In because men still run the world, because historically white men run the world and I'm just not sure that's going that well," she said with a laugh that was echoed by the audience. While women are underrepresented, both men and women of color are "sorely underrepresented" in leadership decisions, she added.
Noting that the majority of black children in the country are raised by single mothers, she proclaimed, "The issues that balance inequality in the workplace are even more important" to African Americans. She called a gender wage gap that's more pronounced for black and Latina women "completely unacceptable."
In the question-and-answer period, students pushed for more race-specific commentary. Nya Whitaker, a freshman international-business major, asked, "As African-American women, what should we do to fortify and prepare ourselves for the trials we're going to face?"
Sandberg's response was a characteristic insistence on large-scale change, paired with a pep talk on personal ambition. "As women and as women of color, the bar is higher. We know men get promoted based on potential and women on what they already know," she said. "We've gotta change that, and until we change that, the onus is on us to be super prepared."
Krista Cezair, 21, senior accounting major, told The Root she'd hoped "to get more nuance" from Sandberg's response to her query about how African-American women in particular can "manage their likability" in light of "this huge stereotype as black women being seen as angry.
"What she said was really the kind of stuff that we grow up hearing. You have to be careful, you have to know when to smile, you have to play the game, you have to put your game face on. But I wanted to know more about how she felt personally about that," Cezair said after the event. "I do want to be an executive, but to get there it seems I'd have to change my personality a bit, and that makes me a little nervous.
But overall, she was pleased with the substance of Sandberg's first-ever remarks at an HBCU. "I don't know if it's because I had a low bar set, but every time she mentioned race, I was like, oh wow, she's really covering it."
Cezair assessed Sandberg's choice to launch the campus program at Howard as "great publicity for us, but great publicity for her, too," noting, "It shows that she's trying to be inclusive and trying to break away from that mainstream white feminism that tends to ignore the racial issues that compound our gender issues."
Okianer Christian Dark, dean of the School of Law, called the choice to make the announcement on Howard's campus "a good example" because "if you want to communicate to the world the importance of having a diverse leadership group in the various workplaces, then Howard is the quintessential place — it's extremely diverse."
Plus, said Dark, who believes that Sandberg's Lean In advice is valuable to professionals of all colors, "I appreciate the fact that she didn't try to say she was speaking for black women. I think that's important, and people should try to pay attention to that."