While writing Equality: Courageous Conversations about Women, Men & Race to Spark a Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough, my team and I conducted interviews with executive women from all over the country. We asked them about supporting other women in the workplace and how women from different ethnicities support and advocate for one another.
We confirmed what we already suspected: By using their influence, women can transform America’s workplaces — but too few are stepping up.
One woman we interviewed is “Paula,” a vice president at a large consumer goods company. She was very forthright. “Women are afraid to be seen as carrying the ‘women banner.’ As a result, we shy away from promoting other women,” she said. “I was given some bad advice as I started to climb the ladder — to not be seen as ‘too aggressive’ on supporting women’s initiatives and simply be known for driving great business results. What I have discovered is that I can do both and need to do both.”
To close the gender opportunity gap, we should all be driving great business results and sponsoring — not just mentoring — women. Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is someone who not only advises you on your career, but actively helps to advance it. Sponsors have power. They use their social capital, credibility and voice to advocate for someone. Sponsors promote, protect, prepare and push their protégés.
Sheryl Sandberg, best-selling author and COO of Facebook, is the prototype for a successful woman. But where would Sheryl Sandberg be today without former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers? Loretta Lynch is a highly accomplished attorney in her own right, but would she have become the first African-American female U.S. attorney general without the backing of President Obama?
Women have a lot of work to do when it comes to helping each other in the workplace. As Paula said in our interview, “If we want change, we have to be the change. It is time for women to stop blaming the lack of opportunities for women on men. Yes, we need to partner with them. But, we need to do our own work.”
Equality for all women
Gender parity will not happen without bringing all women along. White women have made strides in the workplace, even with the constraints of gender bias, but what about women of color?
A report by the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit that promotes diversity, found that black female professionals are more likely to seek top leadership roles than their white colleagues, but are often treated as “virtually invisible.” One reason: Black women lack sponsors. The report found only 11 percent of women of color had the support and sponsorship of senior leaders in their companies.
How will you use your voice to change the status quo for all women in the workplace? Do you think all women in corporate America are having the same experience? Are you comfortable having courageous conversations about race, women, power, privilege and bias?
If you’re not comfortable, today is your special day. Today you are being invited to step up and get into the game of driving equality.
Here are four courageous, call-to-action baby steps to help you become more intentional about expanding your own diversity and inclusion awareness and improving your organization’s workplace equality.
- Participate in employee resource groups where you will be in the minority. Reflect on how it feels. Share your feelings with other women who look like you and those who don’t. Start the conversation.
- Identify five women from different ethnicities and generations and commit to serving as their mentor or sponsor for a full year.
- If you lead people, assess the diversity of your team. Have you been intentional about building a team that truly reflects the face of your customer? If not, make a commitment to ensure women and people of color are included in the next opportunity for placement of a new team member.
- Write a legacy statement that reflects an intention to open the door to other women who may achieve more success than you have achieved.
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