Leaning In and Fighting Back

By Ella Mahony

Residents of Cambridge, MA often playfully call the city “The People’s Republic of Cambridge”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to its lefty politics and multicultural vibe. But the city is also well known for hosting a worldwide bastion of privilege and power, Harvard University. It is that paradox that is playing out right now at “Harvard’s Hotel”, the Hilton Doubletree Suites hotel owned by the university that lies only a mile away.

It is at the Doubletree that hotel workers have been organizing for a fair process to decide on a union with Unite-Here! Local 26, Boston’s hospitality and food service workers union. Leading the charge have been the female housekeepers that do most of the hotel’s drudge work, many of whom are immigrant women of color. They are fighting, among other things, for better insurance and a safer workplace, one where they are not expected to put their health at risk to turn over more rooms. Most importantly, they are fighting for respect and a chance for their work to be recognized.

So when Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of the self-help cum female empowerment bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, came to address Harvard’s Class Day in May, these housekeepers decided to grab their chance to highlight the work they do. They started an online petition calling on Sandberg to “Lean In” with them, as she did with Harvard students, in their effort to be recognized and respected in the workplace. The petition spurred something of an art project, with the Lean In cover redesigned to feature the women of Harvard’s hotel rather than Sandberg. And they spoke up to the press about the real experiences that informed this campaign.

Housekeeper Delmy Lemus, for example, spoke to the Boston Globe about how literally leaning in at work has affected her. “When she was pregnant with her now 4-year-old daughter,” reports the Globe, “[she] began suffering sciatic nerve pain ad was barely able to stand by the end of her shifts.” Despite this, management demanded that in the eighth month of her pregnancy she push heavy linen cards and pull out sofa beds. Sandberg might lean into her Macbook Air, but women of color like Lemus lean in at much higher risk with much lower compensation. This dissonance is brilliantly highlighted when Lemus and her coworkers feature their photos on Sandberg’s book and use her catchphrases to further their cause.

In the end, Sandberg declined to meet with the Doubletree housekeepers. She said she was too busy. Lemus’ assertion that she, too, “is a woman who is speaking up […] who is leaning in,” seems to have fallen on deaf ears when it comes to Sandberg and Harvard. But much of the community has been listening, and respecting the boycott of the hotel, causing it to lose $30,000 in business over a single weekend in May. What Sandberg fails to see is that one woman “leaning in” at work and running with the boys doesn’t cause systematic change, especially for the working class women who don’t have a voice in the boardroom. So the housekeepers of Harvard’s hotel are showing her how to really do it, by organizing collectively and getting their stories out — with or without a slick book deal.

Ella Mahony completed the Union Semester program in Fall of 2013.