In a previous job, Minda Harts corrected her manager who was celebrating the company for “having the most diverse leadership across the country in our industry.” When Harts, now an assistant adjunct professor at New York University, pointed out that their organization shouldn’t be celebrating their diversity numbers just yet — all their leaders were white men and white women — her manager was visibly annoyed.
Harts recalls that her manager made her feel like she was wrong for even bringing it up. “Many senior leaders are not comfortable talking about race and they are doing their talent a disservice by ignoring racial equity in the workplace,” says Harts, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.
In 1976, five African-American women attempted to sue General Motors for discrimination, but their claims were dismissed because they weren’t covered within the existing legal framework. GM’s white female employees hadn’t experienced this particular discrimination, so the plaintiffs couldn’t sue for gender discrimination, and men of color hadn’t experienced it either, so the complaint couldn’t be covered under racial discrimination. The U.S. judicial system simply did not have the legal nuance to address experiences specifically of women of color.
More than 40 years later, I’ve seen similar issues persist across industries. While many white women have made gains in the American workplace, the gains for women of color haven’t been nearly as significant. According to McKinsey, white women hold only 19% of C-Suite positions, while women of color only hold 4% of them.
When Indra Nooyi retired from PepsiCo last year and Geisha Williams left PG&E this year, the list lost both the only Indian woman and Latina Fortune 500 leader in one fell swoop. There are no African-American women leading a Fortune 500 company currently.
It’s heartening to see more corporate leaders commit to gender equality, both through company-wide policies and pledges like Paradigm for Parity. However, many of these programs will fall short of addressing true systemic barriers to gender equality if they only propel white women ahead. A seemingly innocuous example is the large-scale adoption of casual dress cultures. Being able to dress comfortably at work sounds like a wonderful perk to have – but for women of color, who often have to repeatedly prove that they belong in corporate workplaces, dressing casually could further reinforce the stereotype that women of color aren’t leaders. Close to 50% of black and Latina scientists were mistaken for janitorial or administrative staff, found another survey. African-American women have reported facing discrimination at corporate workplaces if they come to work with their natural hair.
As organizations recognize the deeply-researched benefits of diversity at work, I see more leaders jumping headfirst into gender diversity efforts that do not consider the experiences of all women, particularly women of color. Corporate leaders need to focus on diversity and inclusion effort that take an intersectional approach, as coined by academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, to identify barriers that women of color face, due to the impact of their race and gender.
Here are some ideas on how corporations can do that.
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