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Untold stories: Building a narrative for women of color

Woman of color

I had a plan for this blog that went like this: Instead of venting my spleen about the lack of women of color in senior corporate ranks, I was going to talk about the upside of women of color in these positions.

I was planning to write about the importance of small gains and incremental victories. I wanted to change the narrative and tell the good news. I truly believe if we talk only of what we don’t have, we reinforce the narrative of our victimization, feeding into the mindset of what we aren’t, rather than what we are.

So, with this plan in mind, I went to my trusty search engine and typed in “Senior women of color in Fortune 2000 companies.” I thought I’d cast a wide net, upping the chance of catching a broad assortment of women-of-color stories. Unfortunately, this is where my plan went somewhat awry.

Whenever I searched for women of color, I got responses about black women. And, let’s be clear, I am a black woman and have been one for my entire life, but black women are not the sum total of women of color.

When we try to discuss the broad issues facing non-white women, we can’t allow ourselves or others to forget there are many kinds of women of color. The nation’s inability or unwillingness to truly recognize this fact is highly problematic. We are not just a big blob of non-white women. Each group under the umbrella of women of color has its own history, problems and successes. Each group deserves the respect to be understood in their own right and not just through the macro lens of “women of color” or the surrogate lens of black women.  

The second reason the search engine seemed to default to stories about African-American women is because the women-of-color statistics for senior or executive women are abysmal. Truthfully, information about women-of-color executives is sparse. Most of data looks at numbers in the senior and executive ranks, rather than why so few women of color exist there. When articles are written about the underlying causes, many focus on black women.

Missing data

Trying to find out how many women of color work in senior positions in corporate America is close to impossible. According to 2015 research from the Center for American Progress, 3.9 percent of senior and executive roles in corporate America were held by women of color. A Catalyst 2016 report looking only at Fortune 500 companies found that 5 percent of senior and executives were women of color. Beyond saying the percentage is small, little other information is available.

Why is the percentage so low? How is this issue being addressed or resolved? The articles discuss how women of color face significant bias in the workplace (not news), but they don’t share much else. This lack of information is aided and abetted by many organizations’ unwillingness to share their data. According to June 2017 Fortune magazine article, only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies fully share their diversity statistics.

What can we take away from all of this?

We already knew the number of women of color in executive roles was abysmal. We now know that we don’t know just how bad it is, because 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies are not sharing their diversity information.

And so, I’m left with a problem. I wanted to write about our progress. I wanted to tell the good news stories so that we could all be inspired to seek our dreams. Instead, we are given statistics that tell us little, while our lived experience, which tells us a lot. We know that women of color do reach the heights of their profession. We know it, because it has been done and will be done again. For instance, we have the oft-used, but still very real, examples of Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo Inc. and former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns.

We also know that many other women of color are working at the most senior corporate levels, whether they are 3.9 percent or 5 percent — they do exist, which means that more will exist.

Consequently, it is up to us to create our own narrative and to tell stories that inform us of reality and encourage us to extend our reach. We know that regardless of whether it is a happy or difficult story, what’s most important is that we tell it, learn from it — and create change.

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Ancella Livers is senior faculty member and executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership. The author and leadership development professional has worked with thousands of managers and executives.

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.