Women Who Are Blind Can Lean In

Empish Thomas

Initial Reaction to Lean In

When I first heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I responded like so many other women in America. I thought how could this woman who has graduated from an Ivy League school, has wealth, a high level senior position, and a husband challenge me to “lean in?” I am working hard as a single, African-American woman with a disability. How in the world do I lean in? Is it possible? Maybe this book does not apply to women like me? So I found myself quickly dismissing all she was trying to say. I saw her interview on CBS 60 Minutes and was even more frustrated, annoyed and discouraged.

Little Attention on Leadership and Moving Up

After some time passed and I calmed down, I found myself being open to at least reading her book, and last week I did just that. Since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month I thought how timely it is to read this book. Every year during this month I read so much on how people with disabilities need and want to work. How the unemployment rate is very high and has been so for many years. How accommodations and assistive technology can open doors of employment. How we just need a chance to prove ourselves. How we are excellent employment candidates because we are loyal and dedicated, rarely leaving the job. But I don’t hear much about how a person or even a woman with a disability can move up the career ladder to a more powerful leadership role. So much is focused on getting employed and so little on maintaining and excelling in employment. So I decided to use this book and this month to talk about exactly that.

Disabled Women Have to Do Even More

Empish Thomas at a Center for the Visually Impaired exhibit in Georgia

Ever since 1996, when I started losing my vision, I have been working. During those early days I had no choice because I had no other financial resources to fall back on. I also knew people with disabilities could work and have a career. So, it never dawned on me to stop working or to not pursue the career that I wanted. But with that being said I did fumble and stumble along the way. There were times I wondered if I was sighted would I have advanced more in my career. If I were not disabled would I have made the same career decisions? I realized I was feeling insecure about my place in the world and in the workplace.

I have always known from childhood that because I was a black woman I would have to work twice as hard, but now I have a disability too. So, how does that work? I know that generally speaking, women have to prove themselves more than men do; but I would dare to say that women with disabilities have to do even more.

As a disabled woman I am amazed at the numbers of other women with disabilities that have advanced degrees but are either unemployed or underemployed. At the same time I have had to count myself as one of those women. We are told we can gain employment based on our previous work history and education but even then we can be strictly scrutinized.

I have been in situations in which I could tell the person I was talking to did not really believe that a person like me could have accomplished so much. It was like I had to have a witness to validate my success. Was the doubt do to my color? My being a woman? My disability? All in my head? Or all the above. I know there is not much I can do about external barriers except to just keep doing what I am doing. Sandberg does acknowledge that, but she also challenges us as women to look at the internal barriers. Sometimes as women we can be our worse enemy. We lean back when we should be leaning in.

Giving in to Fear and Insecurity

Roderick Parker and Empish Thomas at a Center for the Visually Impaired exhibit in Georgia

For me it has been a lack of self-confidence, being afraid or not wanting to take on more work and responsibility. There have been times where I did not speak up or take a stand on something because I did not want to be labeled the angry black woman, bossy or the complaining female.

Sandberg talks about this and the challenges women have of trying to lead and being liked all at the same time. We all know nice girls don’t get the corner office, right? In our society we are groomed to be nice and pleasant, to submit and not make waves or challenge the system. Now adding on a disability, we are told we should be grateful that we are employed. So many of us are not working that those who are employed are very fortunate. We hear that being employed should be satisfying in itself and that having an actual career is asking for too much.

I have to admit I am tired of this mentality and low expectations. It is as if to aim high is absurd, stupid or crazy. I have to admit I have fallen into that mindset myself. Thinking I should not go after the higher level positions, initiate more responsibility, or even request accommodations. There is something about society that tells us as women that we are not supposed to have those things and are not supposed to sit at the table along with men.

Sandberg strongly encourages us to stop thinking and acting that way. To not give into fear or insecurity. To ask for what you want and need to do your job and do it well.

She also encourages women to toot their own horn. Too many times we dumb down our success. We don’t want to come across as prideful or boastful and that can lead to missed opportunities.

I found myself doing that a few years ago when doing my first self-evaluation for my performance review. When I met with my supervisor she actually was shocked and told me I needed to rate my accomplishments much higher.

A Jungle Gym Is Not A Ladder

I appreciate Sandberg’s perspective of a career path as a Jungle Gym, not as a ladder. She says “the only thing you will see moving up a ladder is the person’s butt above you.” The workforce has changed and working at one place for several years to get the gold watch does not work anymore. I have done exactly that. For a long time I have felt bad my career path has zigged and zagged. But after reading this book I see more clearly that every job I had along the way helped prepare me for the next one.

Final Thoughts

Even before finishing this book, I had already started thinking of ways to lean in more. I am not shying away anymore and using the excuse, that as a blind woman, I don’t want to be a bother to people.

This week I attended an after hours career mixer. In the past I would shy away from networking mixers and not go. But no more! The bottom line is don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and need even if it seems impossible. You might just get it and more. The only way to find out is to lean in!

I would like to hear what you think!