Diversity and Inclusion

Want to Be a Champion at Work? Embrace Intersectionality.

Prior to her current position as director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, Debra Langford worked in Hollywood. She spent over 18 years in high level positions at NBC and Time Warner. But as an African-American woman working in the steep hills of Hollywood, her work could sometimes be made small.

“I never worked on a black show… but there were times when people thought that my perspective would be exclusively that of an African-American female,” she told the audience of the “Intersectionality: Changing Corporate Culture” panel session at Forté’s MBA Women’s Leadership Conference. She and three other guest speakers from different backgrounds and industries shared their experiences during a panel on intersectionality, a framework that explores how various identities – like race, religion and sexuality – can overlap and cause multiple forms of discrimination.

To her questioning colleagues, Langford’s gender and race restricted her talents and contributions. Her identities and their perceived influence boxed her in, just as they did to Deboleena Bose, the vice president of Human Resources, North America at Whirlpool Corporation. When Bose moved to the United States from India for a new HR position, her past began to define her present. “Every person I met asked me whether I was in IT or whether I was in software,” she said. “As soon as they see somebody Indian…it was assumed that that’s your identity, that’s your persona.”

Having your abilities limited by someone else’s prejudice is derailing, Bose said. “How do you not get brought down by the box that someone else has drawn for you?” she asked.

But these moments of self-doubt and discrimination can serve as opportunities for the future. After once being dismissed from a meeting that she rightfully attended after being mistaken for an assistant, Maureen Greene-James, the leader of Diversity and Leadership Development at Cognizant Technology Solutions, began to refocus on how to be known. Now, when she enters a meeting, “people know not just who I am in that room, but who I am in every single room that I walk into,” she said. After being silenced, she was determined to be as loud as possible.

Langford also knew that she had the power to change things. “When you have a seat at the table, speak up,” she said. She encouraged the audience of business school students to ask others this question: “Are you looking at someone with only one lens and not appreciating all of her?”

She also suggested that they ask themselves the same question. She mentioned a study that showed that African-American women tended to network with only other African-American woman. Business school is the place to “blow that out,” she said. “You can be in the LGBTQ group and the women’s group and the Asian group,” she said. It’s a time to practice intersectionality, to reach beyond your own identity and become familiar with someone else’s.

That’s what Edua Dickerson did when she attended the MBA program Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Before becoming the Strategy and Operations Manager of Alphabet Finance at Google, she “flexed” as a business student.

“I wasn’t only going to the black and Latina organization events, or only going to the tech club events,” she said. She extended her network far and wide beyond her own interests. These experiences listening and empathizing during business school made her a better leader, she said.

She lets her unique personality outshine any stereotypes that may be ascribed to her. “I am greater than the sum of my parts,” she said.

The answer to breaking out of someone else’s box is to build your own. “This is your chance,” Langford told the audience. “This is your chance to listen more,” to learn more about your own identity and the perspectives of those around you. “This is your chance to be somebody’s champion,” she said.

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