Last month I had the pleasure of hosting the Council of Urban Professionals’ first Chief Diversity Officer Roundtable, with our partner, Bloomberg LP. The evening’s proceedings were a deep dive into what employers can do to support women of color in the workplace and ensure that they have the same opportunities to succeed as their peers. As you can imagine, our conversations were lively, informative, and illuminating.
Perhaps the most important and consistent finding was the notion that organizational leaders have to take an active role in driving change in the workplace. Women of color only make up 0.4% of S&P 500 CEOs, and only 4.6% (23) of S&P 500 CEOs are women at all. Until these numbers more accurately represent our nation’s demographics, men will have an important role to play to make sure that diversity and inclusion are a priority and that there are accountability measures put into place to ensure that diversity and inclusion initiatives are a priority in their industries. While many have written substantively about what women and women of color can do to help each other and “lean in” in the workplace, there’s been little focus on the important role men play in creating equitable work environments.
For men who lead organizations, this means setting the tone from the highest levels of business. We have to commit ourselves to appointing diverse individuals to our boards of directors and ensuring that executives have clearly outlined goals for diversity and inclusion with key milestones and measures of success.
We also need to ensure that managers at all levels are adequately prepared to manage diverse groups. This means ensuring that interviewers are diverse, managers are diverse, and that they’re able to tackle difficult issues such as unconscious bias – the ways managers and colleagues may be unwittingly hindering the performances of women of color in the office. It means being aware of the myriad of ways men and woman have been socialized into treating each other both in the work place and in society at large over several generations and the challenges women may face on a daily basis. Before dismissing a woman as being emotional, angry, aggressive, or too passive to be a “leader” – consider how we would treat a man presenting the same information in the same way. This is particularly pertinent for women of color who may fight biases specific to their gender and cultural background.
It also means giving women who have stepped up to the table a chance to thrive and making sure that their voices are heard. For the woman who may be less vocal, we should take the time to ask her directly what she thinks and actively listen, so that her opinion is not lost in the mix. There are moments when the best way for a man to lead is by listening.
It’s also important to remember that not all women are the same, or have the same needs. Many of our roundtable participants described feeling as if the women’s networks in their offices were geared towards white women. Others reported the impression that many interventions, designed to improve the role of women in the workplace, focused on women with husbands and children, and not on women from other walks of life – and that was even before we reached the roundtable discussion tackling challenges to recruiting women internationally, with the myriad of different cultural expectations and nuances that dictate how women of color approach the workplace.
There’s a lot of hard work to be done to achieve true diversity and inclusion, and it can’t be relegated to women alone. Numerous studies have shown that diversity and inclusion is crucial to overall organization performance and profitability. Organizations will have to emphasize diversity and inclusion as a business priority for male and female employees at all levels., or they will not succeed in the future.
I think that many of the roundtable participants left the evening feeling equal parts energized to move ahead, but also keenly aware of the challenges that they face. It will take time, but I’m confident that with enough strong leadership and conscious efforts, we can achieve workplaces that truly are inclusive and supportive of women of all backgrounds.