[Part1 of a 3 Part Series]
On March 13th, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg created national buzz with the release and PR blitz in support of her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. The Harvard MBA graduate and hand-picked protege of former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers (also a Harvard alumnus) appeared on "60 Minutes," "Good Morning America," the cover of Time magazine and a host of other news outlets.
Poised, confident and almost deceptively affable, Sandberg argued that in addition to institutionalized structural barriers, women are, perhaps, hindered by their own attitudes and behaviors in the struggle for career equality and equity. We don't ask for what we want, we don't aspire to be at the top, and when we do, we easily compromise our goals in support of the aspirations of (male) partners or obligations in the home. In short, we pull back when "we should be leaning in." [i]
It was a different argument to an age-old debate. Well, not really. The message had been voiced before, by 1970's women's rights activists who embraced the philosophy of ask for, if not, demand what you want and organize and strategize for change. Fast forward 40 years into a new century, the difference this time lay in who was delivering the message.
It wasn't radical feminists, frequently depicted as angry male-bashers. Nor was it well-meaning, albeit privileged-men-at-the-top whose positions rendered them disconnected from the reality of what it means to be female and ambitious in a male-dominated environment. This time, it was a senior [white female] executive who occupied the ranks of a $66 billion global tech company. Sandberg questioned why only 21 of the nation's Fortune 500 CEOs are women and asked us to consider the possibility of self-inflicted internal barriers to power and corporate leadership roles!
Now consider this. . .
On March 17th, CNN.com published "Black, Female, and a Silicon Valley 'trade secret.'"[ii] Released following a year-long legal battle to gain access to the diversity data on 20 large and small tech companies, the web article exposed the virtual invisibility of African Americans and other people-of-color in decision-making management positions in Silicon Valley -- the modern day mecca of U.S. technological innovation and the birthplace of a disproportionate percentage of contemporary wealth. CNNMoney, in fact, had to petition the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Labor in an attempt to get the 20 companies to release the data. Only eight companies complied. The others refused (Sandberg's Facebook included), describing release of the data as an issue of "trade secret" and to do so would cause "competitive harm." [iii]
After the dust settled, Julianne Pepitone, the article's author, revealed what people suspected and what government data had been illustrating for decades: "Ethnic minorities and women are generally underrepresented, sometimes severely so -- particularly in management roles. White and Asian males often dominate their fields."
But unlike the Sandberg blitz, the Pepitone piece did not gain significant public attention or media traction. In fact, if the number of reader comments (zero) and the piece's one-day lifespan on the money section of CNN's homepage is any indicator, the short-lived article barely rose to a whisper.
"Ethnic minorities and women are generally underrepresented, sometimes severely so -- particularly in management roles. White and Asian males often dominate their fields."
Media attention notwithstanding, both Sandberg and Pepitone tackled a similar subject -- diversity, access and inclusion in the corporate arena generally and in the high-stakes technology industry more specifically. One examined the issue from a perspective primarily focused on gender, while the other attempted to inject the subject of race more pointedly into her analysis. To be fair, Sandberg was not silent on the issue of race. She simply did not make it a significant focus of her discussion, noting only that "the [corporate leadership] gap is even worse for women of color, who hold just 4 percent of top corporate jobs, 3 percent of board seats and 5 percent of congressional seats."[iv]
Pepitone attempted to examine the issue more substantively, but, for the most part, was stonewalled. At the end of the day, her analysis was based on the little she was able to uncover, leading her to surmise that contrary to public perceptions of openness, diversity is an issue in Silicon Valley and "people tend to hire people like themselves, and in tech, that's largely white and Asian males." [v]
Whether you agree or disagree with either viewpoint is a decision I encourage you to develop after reading Sandberg's book and Pepitone's article. My goal is to contextualize the issue of diversity, access and inclusion in order to bring greater attention to a core demographic that always seems to get lost in the discussion -- African American women, their presence and participation in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (otherwise referred to as STEM), and the lingering question of why so few?[vi]
Part II of this discussion will examine African American female college enrollment, degree attainment and career experiences in the sciences.
[i] Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
[ii] Julianne Pepitone. "Black, female, and a Silicon Valley 'trade secret,'" CNN.com. Available at http://cnnmoney.mobi/primary/article?url=http://money.cnn.com/mobile/json/2013/03/17/technology/diversity-silicon-valley.json&cookieFlag=COOKIE_SET Accessed: 20 March 2013
[iii] Julianne Pepitone. "Black, female, and a Silicon Valley 'trade secret,'" CNN.com. Available at http://cnnmoney.mobi/primary/article?url=http://money.cnn.com/mobile/json/2013/03/17/technology/diversity-silicon-valley.json&cookieFlag=COOKIE_SET Accessed: 20 March 2013
[iv] Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
[v] Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
[vi] Alice S. Rossi. "Women in Science: Why so Few?", Science, 148 (1965), 1196-1201.
Image Source: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
About the Author
Olivia A. Scriven, Ph.D., is the founder and President/CEO of Partners for Educational Development, an Atlanta-based consulting firm which specializes in designing programs to increase the recruitment, retention and degree attainment of under-represented minorities and women in STEM at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to working with colleges and universities to create campus climates for diversity and inclusion, Dr. Scriven is on the faculty at Georgia Tech where she teaches seminars in African American history from pre-European colonial contact through the Civil War and from Reconstruction through the presidential elections of Barack Obama.
Dr. Scriven holds the doctoral degree in the History of Technology and Science from Georgia Tech – the first and ONLY African American to be awarded the Ph.D. in the program. Her research explores issues of race, gender, and policy in science and technology studies, with a particular focus on pioneering Black women and the role of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in producing African Americans in STEM. You can read more about Dr. Scriven at www.partnersforedu.org.