72% Do Not Feel Equipped to Have a Conversation on Race in the Workplace

Over a hundred women from How Women Lead — a community of senior Bay Area women leaders committed to addressing issues around inequity together — gathered on 17th June 2020 for a Conversation on Race in the Workplace.

Attendees came “to hear with an open mind and heart and find ways to heal together”. They came to be “uplifted and supported”, to bring ideas back to their workplaces, “learn how to dismantle systemic oppression” and create change, “not incremental change or bandaids — substantive, lasting change”.

Founder & CEO Julie Castro Abrams kicked off the event with an emphatic “we are committed to making an impact; committed to Black Lives because you Matter”. She reminded the community of the How Women Lead credo to shift how we work together by architecting a new way of being by 1) being fierce advocates for each other 2) saying “Yes!” to helping each other 3) reinforcing Her voice so she is heard and 4) being unabashedly visible because “what you do, how you act, has a big impact and my daughter is watching you and taking cues…”

Julie shared how exhausted she was recently with uncertainty, discomfort and fear in the air and how she thought about curling up and taking a break from it all — when she felt a wave of shame as she reminded herself of “what a privilege it was to be able to turn it off. People of color in our country cannot turn it off.” She called upon attendees to lean into the discomfort, because “no matter how open-minded, socially conscious, anti-racist I think I am, I still have old, learned hidden biases that I need to examine. It is my responsibility to check myself daily for my stereotypes, prejudice and ultimately, discrimination.”

Our Separate Ways Lybra Clemons, a Diversity & Inclusion expert inspired by Ella L.J. Bell Smith, Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and acclaimed author of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, reflected on having a full circle moment because she and Dr. Bell had first met at a similar corporate women’s event back in 2003, shortly after the book was published and feeling “sick” that decades later, the book was even more important now, than it was then.

Ella and co-author Stella Nkomo wrote the book because they wanted to know how Black women made their way into management positions in corporations and whether their journey was different from a white woman’s journey. They wanted to know about their experiences with “racialized racism”, the relationships between Black and white women and the “elephant in the room — where we stood with them”.

This ground breaking research took 8 years of interviews with 120 senior women managers and they over sampled Black women because nobody had interviewed this demographic before. They found that white women tended to have white male sponsors while the Black women did not. They found Black women in their sample were better educated, coming from Harvard, Wharton, Stanford and other Ivy league colleges.

Because “childhood shapes us as adults and who we are as leaders,” they studied Black and white women’s childhood experiences. Black girls from a poor background had strong family and community support and those Black women in turn supported their communities. On the other hand, white girls from a poor background got no support, had to bootstrap and learned to work hard and depend on themselves. Both got career messaging from fathers, but Black women had great respect for their mothers while white women were highly critical and had little respect for their mothers. Black women had many “Sheroes” while white women struggled to list one or two.

This affected white women’s ability to form rich and meaningful relationships with other women at work. In addition, women who grew up critical of other women find themselves not just being hard on other women, they are even more hard on themselves. Race, class and these different childhood experiences had a huge impact on women’s world views, their understanding of power dynamics in the workplace and their assumptions and expectations.

Discomfort on All Sides Several white women were struck by how much Ella’s stories mirrored their own life journeys while others with more recent immigrant backgrounds and tightly knit extended families related to the community support for Black women. A poll of the participants in the conversation showed that although 68% had a Black woman friend, 72% felt that they did not have enough information or feel equipped to have conversations around race in the workplace.

All of the women in one breakout session discussed having to play a role in shaping their companies’ public response to protests. Black women wanted to share their perspective, but did not feel they had to carry the burden of drafting responses for others. They described it as someone spilling something on your dress and then asking you to split the dry cleaning bill with them — after you had warned the offender to “watch out” multiple times before! Non-Black women in the group that were drafting these responses acknowledged their own challenges wanting to both include the perspectives of black employees and their own pain and experience; they didn’t know the right balance.

In another breakout session, one Black woman shared that she was getting tons of calls to ask how she was doing but then was not included in future planning. In fact, she shared that she is the only Black person in management and only as a result of these recent conversations, she learned that there was a diversity committee — which she was not on!

Many organizations are calling on Diversity consultants to help navigate this crisis, but before they do that, Ella suggests that white women contemplate: What does it mean to be white? What does my race mean to me? What has it given to me and how has it gotten in my way?

Call for an Inclusive Community of Women to Lead the Shift In the second part of the conversation, Lisen Stromberg, culture strategist, author of “Work Pause Thrive” & CEO of PrismWork discussed how the relationship between white and Black women can transform from Ally to Accomplice and co-Conspirator. Instead of race dividing women in corporate America, an inclusive community of women can lead the shift to a more equitable workplace.

The system we operate under today is evolving from the masculine, Twentieth Century model of the workplace into a Twenty First Century workplace that is diverse not homogenous, collaborative not hierarchical, focused on results not face-time, that puts people and purpose ahead of products and profits and is influenced by millennial, not boomer mindsets.

Change in the workplace is being radically impacted by COVID-19, the Great Recession and Black Lives Matter protests, driving demand for a more feminine style of Twenty-first Century Leadership. First described in the Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future these leaders are authoritative not authoritarian, collaborative and agile not rigid, comfortable being vulnerable operating in uncertain, ambiguous times, come from an abundance not scarcity mindset, believe in advocacy not meritocracy and put team ahead of personal success.

Current Leadership falls short with “Zero Vulnerability”

Lybra Clemmons expressed disappointment with CEO responses to Black Lives Matter protests. They seemed to be boilerplate drafted by communications departments, showed “zero vulnerability” and said more about the lack of leadership at the top, with no connection to what is happening on the ground.

She suggests that Inclusive Twenty-First Century Leaders ask themselves:

  • How Curious are you in asking questions about what is happening?

  • How Connected are you to your Black employees?

  • How Courageous are you to push back and advocate for a person of color?

  • How Committed are you to continuing conversations around Race?

According to Ella, “how we lead is directly connected to our journey so if you don’t understand your journey, you cannot be an effective leader”.

At this critical moment in time, the women in this conversation were keenly interested in learning history and how we got here and more important, they were sincere about contemplating their own stories — key to becoming an inclusive leader creating substantive, lasting change. You may want to reflect on your own journey and join the next How Women Lead conversation on Race in the Workplace.

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