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Areva Martin wants to shift the ‘Lean In’ paradigm: ‘You can't lean into a closed door’

Emily Woodbury

Lawyer, author and St. Louis native Areva Martin wants to shift the "Lean In" paradigm for women in the workplace.

“We are enough; it's not us,” she said. “You can't lean into a closed door.”

Martin joined St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske last Thursday before a live audience to discuss her new book, “Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We've Been Told.”

In Areva Martin's new book, "Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We've Been Told," she encourages women to recognize and assert their power.
Leaders Press
In Areva Martin's new book, "Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We've Been Told," she encourages women to recognize and assert their power.

Martin grew up in St. Louis’ Carr Square neighborhood before attending the University of Chicago and then Harvard Law School. She said one of the first lies she encountered was the idea that if you simply worked really hard, you would succeed.

“Growing up as an African American woman [and] girl … we tell our children [and] our grandparents tell us we have to be twice as good. We have to work twice as hard,” she said. “I'm not suggesting that hard work is not important. But there was an additional part of that story about hard work that wasn't told to me, and I think isn't told to many women.”

Martin got used to navigating spaces where women are not often present. Working for a big law firm, she said she wasn’t typically invited to meetings that happened outside office hours.

“It's those deals, those contracts, those negotiations and things that are happening while oftentimes women are at the office, head down, working hard,” she said. “And men often are in those closed-door sessions on the golf courses, in those cigar bars [and] in those other places and spaces.”

She also noted that women, particularly Black women, often experience micro and macro aggressions in the workplace.

Martin said the first step in countering these issues is to acknowledge they exist. “Some people, just by acknowledging that what they've been told was kind of a half-truth, is in and of itself enough for that person,” she said.

The next step involves deciding whether to speak up or to leave the situation entirely. Martin said that determining the right move depends on your circumstances and an educated guess at how speaking up will be received.

“As you become more mature in your career and your position, you will figure out what's the best way to handle those situations. Sometimes it's to terminate the relationship, sometimes it's to say something openly to that person,” she said. “And find those mentors. You're not the first person that this has happened to. The fact that this is happening to you means that this is probably systemic to that organization. And you definitely want to find those people that have navigated those waters before.”

When Martin was 29, she came to the conclusion that despite her hard work, her credentials and her accomplishments, she would not get ahead by staying at the law firm that employed her.

“There was something else in the workplace — that was not about me, and not about the work that I did, not about the credentials or the expertise that I had — but it was really about the system and a structure that was set up that I didn't have a lot of control over,” Martin said.

She said her decision to leave the firm and start her own was her awakening. As she writes in her book, “My work ethic allowed me to build a successful law firm and career, but this only happened when I stepped outside of the system and built that career for myself.”

Martin hopes that “Awakening” helps other women in the workplace to have their own epiphany.

Areva Martin joins St. Louis on the Air
Hear Martin discuss her book, "Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We've Been Told" before a live audience

“Don't allow yourself to think that there's something wrong with you, or that you've done something to merit that kind of behavior,” she said. "Don't stop speaking your mind. You don't shrink to make someone else feel comfortable."

Martin is a civil rights attorney, a CNN legal analyst and an entrepreneur. In addition to co-founding the Los Angeles-based law firm Martin & Martin, LLP, she founded the autism nonprofit Special Needs Network and is CEO of the health technology company Butterfly Health.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.