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Equality starts with a courageous conversation

Hands clasping

A few weeks ago, I presented to a client’s diversity and inclusion council. It was an intimate meeting, just 12 of us in the room, mostly senior executives for the company. There group was balanced between genders, and there was one black male and one black female in the room.

After going through a series of exercises that focused on the language of inclusive leaders, we engaged in a debriefing dialogue on dynamics such as microaggressions, racism and racial profiling. As we started our debrief, I asked, “How many of you understand what I am talking about when I say, as a black woman it pained me to have ‘the talk’ with my son and daughter when they turned 15?” Several people laughed.

One gentlemen said that having “the talk” these days at 15 was too late. I asked him directly, “What talk are you referencing?” He responded, “The sex talk, of course.” I asked the group, “How many of you would agree with him?” Everyone except for the two other black people in the room agreed. “I’m not referring to that talk,” I said. The man looked perplexed.

I explained, “The talk about how to handle yourself when you encounter a police officer,” I responded.  “What?” he inquired, in total disbelief. I responded, “Let me tell you a little more about what black people and other people of color face as a daily challenge that you, as a member of the dominant group, know nothing about.”

A matter of life or death

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that black men are nearly three times as likely to be killed by legal intervention than white men. American Indians or Alaskan Natives are nearly three times as likely, and Hispanic men are nearly twice as likely.

“What do you fear?” a senior leader asked. “What parents of young teenagers of color fear most is death,” I said. An awkward silence fell over the room.

I asked another question, “Why should this issue be on your radar screen as leaders in the business world?” The answer is simple. Everything that happens in society enters your businesses and, more importantly, impacts the way we view and treat one another. Bias knows no geography. It is everywhere.

If you are willing to step out of your bubble and begin to pay attention to things that may not directly impact you, you can begin to build a new leadership capability that is essential for leading the most diverse workforce in history and the most polarized society in recent times.

Can you imagine how a mother or father would feel if they received the call from their child about being pulled over by the police? If you are a leader who is empathic, you will understand the daily burden of an employee who worries that their child might be killed by the police.

One of the leaders on the council spoke up, “I’m not equipped to help an employee deal with a situation like the one you’re describing.”  “But you are,” I insisted.

Imagine you are at a pool enjoying the sun and the water, and you hear screams from others shouting, ‘He’s drowning!’ Would you just sit and watch? Would you not act for fear of getting CPR right or wrong? No, you would jump in to help. That’s all that is required to understand how bias of all kinds affects another person. You just have to care enough to make it personal.

It is easier than you think to learn how to become a champion for equality. You’ve already taken the first step. You haven’t turned a deaf ear to what I’m sharing. You’re willing to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Creating change

Equality champions recognize when there have been injustices, even when they haven’t impacted them directly. None of us have the responsibility for changing the world unless we believe we have been chosen to do so. But all of us can make changes in the space where we live and work.

Do you have the desire to be awakened to the injustices in the business world and the world at large? Do you desire to develop the capabilities to lead in today’s business environment?  Are you a leader who wants to serve as an equality champion?

If your answer to any one of these questions is yes, it’s time for some courageous conversations. The first conversation is with yourself.

Consider these questions to get you started:

  • Have I led a life of privilege (am I assumed to be smart or trustworthy because of my gender or skin color)?
  • Do I appreciate what those who are different from me (generations, gender and ethnicity) go through daily?
  • Do I care enough to slow down and understand the experiences of others?

Consider these actions:

  • Agree to engage in a reciprocal mentoring relationship with someone who is not from your ethnicity, generation, sexual orientation or different from you in some way.
  • Be willing to admit that you don’t know what you know don’t about the experiences others are having.
  • Be aware of everything that is happening in the world, even if it doesn’t directly impact you. Pay attention to the stories of injustice. Think about the impact of what is happening in society on your team.
  • Ask colleagues who are different than you for help in understanding how injustices impact them.
  • Practice stepping into the gap to help others who don’t know what you now know.

Becoming a champion for equality is available to you today. Are you willing to learn how?

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Trudy Bourgeois is founder and CEO of The Center for Workforce Excellence and the author of four books, including the most recent, Equality: Courageous Conversations about Women, Men and Race To Spark A Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough. She previously held senior leadership roles in the consumer goods industry. 

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.