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What Ella and Marilyn can teach us about sisterhood

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe

In the mid-1950s, Ella Fitzgerald was a rising female vocalist. Her sultry sound was new and fresh. There was just one problem: Ella could not get booked at many of the hottest nightclubs because she was black. She had her sights set on being featured at the Mocambo, the Hollywood nightclub where careers were made.

At the same time, Marilyn Monroe was a megastar and was getting calls to perform at all of the hottest nightclubs. She heard about the challenges Ella was facing and decided to take action. She and Ella had become friends, so Marilyn leveraged her power.

She called the clubs’ managers and promised if they would feature Ella, she would come to all of her performances and sit in the front row every night for a week. Marilyn knew her presence would entice the press to cover Ella’s gigs and she made high-profile visits to see Ella perform at the Tiffany Club. Her strategy worked.

On March 15, 1955, Ella Fitzgerald opened at the Mocambo and put on a show that cemented her path to stardom. The press dubbed her the “Queen of Jazz” and she went on to record more than 70 albums, forever changing the music industry.

Ella and Marilyn created their own sisterhood — writing their own moving story of a woman publicly supporting another woman.

Marilyn Monroe recognized she held a certain power and made the choice to use it. She didn’t worry about the perception that might be formulated about supporting a black woman. She didn’t care that some may say she was “carrying the equality” banner.

Marilyn Monroe did what all women should do for each other. She had a seat at the table of opportunity and she pulled up a chair so that Ella could also take a seat. Has a woman who doesn’t look like you ever created an opportunity by using her equity to create a seat for you at the table? Have you ever done it for another woman?

Women of color are the most underrepresented group in the senior and upper levels of corporate America, according to the 2016 Women in the Workplace study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. Their numbers decrease significantly at the middle and senior levels. Why, you ask? It’s not for lack of ambition. Women of color in this country are hungry for more job responsibilities and are striving for the top positions. The missing piece in the puzzle is advocacy and sponsorship — mainly from white women.

Courageous conversations

While writing my soon-to-be-published book, Equality: Courageous Conversations about Women, Men & Race to Spark a Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough, my team and I conducted interviews with executive women about the interactions and support between various ethnic groups of women in the workplace. These women were from diverse backgrounds and working in a variety of fields.

Though their experiences and views varied, they did agree on two critical points. First, white women have made significant strides, even in a climate where gender bias remains prevalent. Second, there seems to be a tension between women of color and white women.

One research participant, Dr. Ancella Livers, explained these tensions help build “plastic walls” that stop women from helping other women. As she so wisely put it, “We see each other, but don’t touch and often can’t touch because the walls of our mistrust often impede communication beyond a shallow level.”

It can be difficult to create individual interactions if both parties are not receptive to building relationships. Many women of color believe their exchanges with white women are fraught with unacknowledged tensions and judgments.

We need to get out of our own way, ladies. The writing is on the wall. It’s clear that women of color are lagging behind in advancement opportunities. If white women don’t recognize the power and influence they have in organizations and use it on behalf of themselves and other women, then the ability of women to help themselves seems greatly compromised.

So, what are we going to do? Are you willing to step out and have courageous conversations? Are you open to becoming curious about our different paths? Are you ready to stand boldly and make a pledge to get intentional about serving your organization as a public champion for the advancement of all women?

Here are three Courageous Call-to-Action Initiatives that can help you be more intentional about expanding your own diversity and inclusion awareness and improving your organization’s workplace equality:

  • Challenge yourself to become culturally competent, starting with gaining knowledge about women and/or men who don’t look like you. Be intentional about spending time outside of work in casual environments where you can get to know others who are not of your race.
  • Develop the courage and confidence to ask the tough questions when you get a seat at the table. Ask questions like, “Can we diversify our candidate pool so that we have a broader representation?”
  • Use your power. Start with your own team. What does your team look like? Would your team members say that you have created an “inclusive environment” where courageous conversations can happen anytime? Have you invested in your team’s development of cultural competencies? Are you really able to lead by example?

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.