Is Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg right?

OPINION - Yet Sandberg contends, and rightly so, that this handful of women (4 percent of Fortune 500 companies) isn’t enough, especially when women represent nearly half of the current workforce...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I had barely retrieved the latest issue of TIME magazine from my mailbox– much less read it—before the airwaves began spilling the contents about the magazine’s cover person, Sheryl Sandberg.

Do spoiler alerts apply solely to movies and Scandal these days?

Actually, I was glad to hear and read that women reaching for higher rungs in corporate America is still trending, and that Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, is tackling the subject head on in her new book, Lean In.

The book, with its catchy title and timely release during Women’s History Month, encourages women to “lean in to the opportunities and challenges of becoming a boss,” says the TIME article. That statement alone is mildly confusing given the celebrity-like status women garnered by women chieftains such as Carly Fiona, former Hewlett Packard CEO, Meg Whitman, former Ebay CEO, and Ursula Burns, current CEO of Xerox. Adding further diversity to the mix of women chief executives, there’s Janice Bryant Howroyd (ACT-1 Group) and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom have signed their own paychecks while telling others what to do for many years.

Yet Sandberg contends, and rightly so, that this handful of women (4 percent of Fortune 500 companies) isn’t enough, especially when women represent nearly half of the current workforce.

However, here’s the sticking point. Rather than pinning the blame on unfair or discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, Sandberg believes women themselves are as much to blame.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she states in her book.

Well, yes and no.

Lillian Lambert is the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard’s MBA program. For 20 years she was the owner of a $20 million building maintenance firm based in Landover, Md.  Although she has not read Sandberg’s book, Lambert agrees that women often are not as aggressive as they should be in going after what they want.

“For me I was aware that I was usually in the minority, race and gender so I tried to be on guard to prepare myself to deal with whatever came up,” says Lambert. “Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes not, but I did not use it as a reason not to forge ahead. I do think we as black women have to deal with the ‘double minority’ and can’t always tell which is in play.”

Certainly, various cultural and social constraints are still in place that consciously or subconsciously whisper to women of all colors to “stay in your place.”  Years ago, when I was a beginning reporter for a daily mid-size newspaper, I always “raised my hand” when more intriguing assignments became available. A supervising editor once described me as “ambitious” rather than ready for growth and more responsibility. Caught up in the allure of what print journalism in those days could provide people who worked hard, years passed before I realized that the sometimes caustic behavior toward me was because some colleagues were threatened by my work ethic and achievements. I learned to rely on support from family, friends,  mentors and readers who applauded my “ambitions.”

Sandberg also values a strong support system, and it was interesting to read that Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, was her professor and adviser at Harvard, where she earned two degrees, including an M.B.A.

Janet Davenport, vice president of communications for Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, said mentoring relationships demonstrated by Summers and Sandberg have long been key for women who successfully climb the corporate ladder.  African-American women tend to lean toward “circles outside of our work world” for support.

In Davenport’s workplace, executive coaching  is the norm for its leadership staff of mainly women. The concept was introduced by the foundation’s president, Frances G. Padilla.

“I think it speaks to her style of leadership,” Davenport says of Padilla. “You have to give people the tools to empower themselves. The ideas of providing professional development resources and tools can be effective.”

Bonnie Newman Davis is a freelance journalist and journalism educator who lives in North Carolina and Virginia.