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Women of Color in the Workplace: Navigating the Common Challenges

It’s not easy being a woman of color in the business world. Women of color comprise just four percent of C-suite leaders, compared to white women’s 20 percent, and that number has not moved significantly in three years. Additionally, women of color are more likely than white women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful treatment and microaggressions. It’s no surprise that burnout, stress, and work dissatisfaction are also higher among women of color — but what can be done about it?

To answer that question, Forté gathered four women for the Women of Color plenary session, held at the 2022 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in Los Angeles in June:

  • Suezette Yasmin Robotham: Vice President – Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Talent & Programs, Gartner
  • Gerianne Sarte: Vice President, Finance – Cardiovascular and Specialty Solutions, Johnson & Johnson
  • Karen Tsowka: Senior Analyst – Transfer Pricing, Amazon
  • Cecelia Velazquez: Senior Vice President, Risk Advisory – Investigations, Compliance and Privacy, AlixPartners

Wendy Dukes, Director of MBA Programs at Forté, moderated the session by asking them about their experiences with common challenges facing women of color in the workplace and potential solutions.

Highlights from their conversation:

Managing microaggressions

Panelists shared their experiences with microaggressions and offered recommendations for dealing with this type of disrespect. Suezette experiences microaggressions all the time and, therefore, “I regularly have to pick my battles,” she said.

In her experience, women of color are often stereotyped as being aggressive when they simply speak directly. “I receive negative reactions while men are respected for saying the same thing. It makes me question people’s ability to hear us when we speak as they do,” she explained.

When Gerianne feels disrespected, she takes a direct, but courteous, approach. “I will address the comment in real-time and ask for clarification. I also approach them on the side, explain how I felt, and acknowledge that maybe they didn’t mean to,” she said. She also sees organizations as having a role in creating a respectful culture. “Hopefully, your organization values taking that action,” she said.

Suezette agrees that an essential role of employers is to “create an environment for me to not experience microaggressions,” she explained.

Gaining allies

Another way organizations can have the backs of women of color and other under-represented employees is through establishing employee resource groups and promoting allyship. At Amazon, Karen belongs to two Employee Resource Groups (ERGs – the Black Employee Network and Women in Finance), and members have supported each other through discussions of bias awareness.

Cecilia agreed that nurturing relationships is key to success. Alix Partners offers “growth circles” for employees of all levels to have opportunities to grow their networks. Gerianne concurred, saying that at Johnson & Johnson, ERGs offer a space where “we can all find where we feel comfortable,” as well as find mentors and sponsors. ERGs create a safe environment where people can be open with each other and develop secure relationships “to navigate through their careers,” she explained.

Being an “only” or a “double only”

Being a female or a woman of color in a white, male-dominated environment — an “only” — can, as Wendy said, make someone feel as if they are under a microscope. She asked the panelists how they deal with the feelings of being an “only.”  Karen shared that she has found herself as the only Black woman or only woman in the room. While she felt “timid at first,” she said, “in smaller groups, I was able to speak more about my ideas,” and “someone helped me see [being an only] as a strength” and as an opportunity to “shine very quickly.”

Karen also acknowledged that companies need to continue to “strive for more diversity hiring” because “we have a long way to go,” she explained. Suezette agrees that employers have a role to make being an “only” a thing of the past. “Instead of me feeling like an impostor, I turn it around to the organization: are they creating an environment where people aren’t an ‘only?’” she asked.

Cultural differences and code-switching

Feeling like an impostor can cause some women to hide their true selves or downplay their backgrounds to fit in with the dominant culture at an organization — also called “code-switching.” Changing how you speak, look, and act to conform can be exhausting.  Gerianne warned against the “burden of emotional tax” of code-switching, and instead she recommended to “find the source [and] make a change. It comes down to self-care — whatever it is for you.”

Cecelia has chosen to see her uniqueness as a positive. “Different cultures, different languages, families, heritage, education…all of that gives you something no one else in the room has. Our stakeholders can all benefit from it,” she said.

While the panelists addressed several common issues and ideas to mitigate them, the challenge for women of color seems to boil down to a fear of bringing their full, authentic selves to work. Suezette suggested that believing in one’s abilities and oneself is a fundamental solution: “Any organization I go to, I take the attitude: They’re lucky I show up to bring my dynamism and skills.”

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