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5 culprits holding multicultural women back

professional multicultural woman smiling

Unless you’re Rip Van Winkle, you already know that people of color represent 92 percent of U.S. population growth, and women of color will comprise 53 percent of the female population by 2050. You may also know that while they drive most purchase decisions in their homes, are more brand loyal than non-Hispanic white women, and are more likely to tell their family and friends when they love a company or product, multicultural women make up just under 13 percent of management positions in the United States and 3.2 percent of Fortune 500 board seats, according to Catalyst.

There are many reasons for this disparity, and truthfully, while institutional race and gender bias are major factors that cannot be ignored, there are lesser-known culprits that keep many women of color stuck in the middle, and they have more to do with consciousness than systems.

It saddens me when I hear young women of color who've recently entered the workforce talk about being coached on how to wear their hair, how to speak, or with whom to hang out (or not). No white professional ever worried about how lunching with other white professionals might negatively impact her career. I realize that social awareness is critical to success. Everyone knows this. But during a time when those we serve are more culturally diverse than ever, and more accepting and expecting of diversity in their brand interactions and in the products they buy, "fitting in” should not be on the list of behaviors we encourage. Understanding and navigating corporate culture, yes. But "fitting in”? No thanks.

When we have an intelligent, driven, committed woman of color in our organization who is bringing her best ideas to the table, the last thing we should be concerned about is how she wears her hair. Instead, we should be interested in what she can teach us about a population that has fundamentally changed before our very eyes. We should want to clear a path for her to inform and inspire others in our company to think new thoughts about our brand’s role in her life. Because here’s the thing about people like her: Unless we’re selling goods to non-Hispanic white men and women want, people like her are the future of our business.

If you invest in your women of color leaders — tell them your unspoken rules, connect them to decision makers, expose them to success secrets, intentionally provide opportunities to demonstrate potential when you would normally choose proof — you can embed intuitive knowledge in your company that will enable a quicker path to relevance with the new American mainstream. These women inherently see consumer realities that others are working hard to develop an eye for.

While institutional gender and race bias are still present in the cpg/retail industry, consider these five lesser-known barriers to multicultural women’s career advancement: 

1. Top leadership subconsciously provides stretch assignments to people who remind them of themselves. Self-check: When a great promotional opportunity comes up, do you automatically go to the usual suspects? The five people on "the list”?

2. Women of color have limited to no visibility. Without culturally-conscious leaders or women of color in succession conversations, no one even notices that all the people discussed are white. Self-check: How many high-potential women of color are in your top leadership succession plans? Do you have a hard time even thinking of names?

3. Women of color don’t know the unspoken rules. So sometimes, they unconsciously break them. Self-check: Have you identified senior-level mentors for your high-potential women of color who can tell them the rules of the road, then help them on their travels?

4. Many middle managers (and senior leaders, for that matter) aren’t sensitive to the unique needs of women leaders of color. This creates misunderstandings, which turn into misrepresentations. Self-check: Does your company have employee resource groups? Are there communities in-house for diverse employees to ensure that issues are raised, discussed and resolved? Have you conducted or considered sensitivity training?

5. Women of color are so concerned with colleagues’ perceptions of them that they water themselves down to fit in. No watered-down leader ever made it the top. Of any color. Self-check: Have you ever asked a woman of color to try harder to fit in? Have you instead encouraged others to develop an eye for substance over style?

Some of you are reading this from the "Amen” corner. Some are reading from the curiosity corner. Some are reading from the "Who, me?” corner. Some stopped reading.

If you’re reading from the "Amen” corner, you’re likely getting the best of people who really want to make a meaningful impact on your business, or you are a person who wants to make a meaningful impact. But if this is new thinking for you or the leaders with whom you work, I hope it causes you to thoughtfully consider your talent management practices. I hope it inspires you to seek out a woman of color in your company who has shown promise, and invest in her. Really invest in her, on a personal level. If enough people do this, it will pay off, not only in your business results, but also for you — in insight, innovative ideas and who knows, maybe even a little personal inspiration.

Tara Jaye Frank is founder and CEO of TJF Career Modeling LLC. The former Hallmark executive has served as co-designer of the NEW Executive Leaders Forum and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose

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.