Far too often, women and people of color find themselves in the familiar position of glancing around the boardroom or C-suite to notice that they are vastly outnumbered. But that phenomenon is even more prevalent at the intersection of the two groups, with women of color finding themselves to be “the first, the few, and the only,” with concerning regularity.
Despite comprising one of the fastest growing segments in the modern workforce, research shows that women of color still only account for roughly 4% of corporate leadership — a statistic that can lend itself to a host of unpleasant side-effects, including imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and a propensity to overcommit to mentoring opportunities in the hopes of eventually elevating other women into similar positions.
NationSwell recently hosted a Mainstage Event — hosted by president, Uyen Tieu and moderated by Deepa Purushothaman, the first woman of color partner at Deloitte, and Vernā Myers, VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix — that was designed with the express intention of examining some of the historic obstacles woman of color have faced in the workplace and unpacking some of the most promising strategies for reclaiming their power and pushing back against predominantly white corporate cultures.
The event marked a great jumping off point for some key learnings about what we can continue to do to foster cultures of inclusion in our work lives and redefine power in corporate America. Here are some of the most important things we learned:
When it comes to choosing a workplace that will value them and their work, women of color can afford to be discerning. Because their professional experience and perspective is in high demand right now, women of color can afford to take the time to shop around for the role that will allow them to do their best work and appreciate their talents — even if it means dispatching with the old wisdom about “just being grateful” for an old job that’s coming up short on both fronts.
Asking the hard questions up front can save you time and grief in the long run. Finding the right role can involve a lot of courage, particularly when it requires going against the grain to suss out potential pain points early on. Purushothaman advised that asking key questions like, “What are you experiencing?” “Do you feel safe?” and “Are you being paid what you deserve?” can help women of color to do a gut check about the treatment they’re receiving — and if something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right.
George Floyd’s murder provided a critical catalyst for discussions of race in the workplace. Along with conversations about the role of work in our lives instigated by the Covid-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder also helped to catalyze a new movement to examine the role race plays at work, and provided a pathway towards understanding what work still needs to be done. “It’s really important for us to recognize that where we are today is a collective movement that’s been happening for a very long time, with so many people making sacrifices,” Myers said. “Things are changing all the time, just not as quickly as we want them to, but it’s important to remember what got us here. We still need people mentoring, pushing, because it’s not guaranteed. We need people to stay super focused, because there’s usually a backlash.”
Women of color still need to do work to examine their own inherent biases. If we can hope to create a true culture of compassion, it’s critical that women of color are also reflexively engaging in work to examine their own biases. According to Myers, one way to do this is to recognize hegemony and hierarchies where they exist, even among groups of women of color. Recognizing the fact that we all have multiple identities will help us to be more aware of where our biases exist so that we can support more women more often.
Companies are trying in earnest to get DEIA initiatives right — but still falling short. Per research by Deepa, 97% of women we interviewed who were interviewed last fall said DEI initiatives weren’t working at their companies. Although there are currently observable trends that show companies weighing diversity initiatives more heavily as part of their cultural DNA, it’s also evident that many of them still haven’t grasped just how much work there is to be done — and have resorted to lazy tactics like copying other companies or trying to reach diversity percentages as if they’re “checking boxes” rather than advocating for real structural shifts.
The NationSwell Mainstage is the premier convening for change makers of all stripes to learn clear, actionable ways that anyone can be a key part of solving the nation’s most urgent problems. Learn more about the NationSwell community here.