Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters Inspiration

Don’t Believe the Hype

Photo by Wallace Chuck from Pexels

It is a story as old as time – at least times that we can remember. The halls of power, the spaces of influence, the golf courses of sponsorship are populated by nothing but white men. Then one day, an other appears in that picture – they are female, BIPOC, maybe even both. We begin to believe that we have turned a corner and barriers have been broken. But then, one of two things happen. Sometimes we seem stuck at just that one, the individual may change but there is always just one person in that space. That is actually the better version because the alternative is that, once that first person is gone, we go back to the monolithic way things were.

It happens over and over again, everywhere we look, and we start to believe that is the only way that things can be. It becomes ingrained in us that there can only be a very limited number of seats at the table for those who are outside of a heteronormative white male mold. It becomes fact that there are not only a limited number of seats but also, for those who are lucky enough to end up in those seats, they need to behave or those seats will be taken away. Getting into and holding those seats becomes a cutthroat competition that would give the Hunger Games a run for its money. Underrepresented people get so caught up in this system that there isn’t the space to pause and ask – really?

We have heard it for long enough now that if you do not know about the business case for diversity, it can only be because you have been living in a tech-free cave. The inclusion of a diversity of people leads to businesses doing better and this is not because those people are not sitting around looking pretty, it is because they bring value through their qualifications, experience, and experiences. When it comes to education, a higher percentage of bachelors and masters degrees have been conferred upon women since the early 1980s and this became true for doctorate degrees in 2006. Unfortunately, even as the number of college-educated women is growing, they continue to lag similarly qualified men. A man with a bachelor’s degree out-earns a similarly qualified woman by $26,000, on average. Women make up half of employees at CPA firms and yet make up less than 30% of partners and principals and, in 2018, only 15% of lead engagement partners auditing S&P 500 companies were women. These are the engagements that give the kind of visibility that can lead to that seat at the table. So if your qualifications and experiences are not being seen because you are being kept out of the high-visibility work, then how do you get to that coveted seat at the table? Before we even throw it into the conversation, I shall take a moment here to add that, at CPA firms with more than 100 employees, partners who are men are more likely to use modified work arrangements than partners who are women.

Now that we have, hopefully, established that there is no good reason for power, pay, and advancement inequity, we also must explode the myth that there is only so much space at the table for the underrepresented. Just because something is the way it is right now, it certainly does not not mean that is the way it should be or that is the way it will be. When we have the opportunity to step into halls of power and get that seat at the table, we should keep in mind those who are right behind us, who probably are a big factor in our success, those who, like us, are talented, and experienced, and qualified. We should keep them in mind as we not only hold that door open but put a wedge under that door to make sure that it does not slam shut behind us.

When we fall back into thinking that there are a very limited number of seats at the table for us, we should ask, why? When we start to wonder if maybe there are too many of us moving into positions of influence we should channel our inner Ruth Bader Ginsberg who said, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” As we channel the Notorious RBG, we should again ask ourselves, why? And even when the odds seem against us, the table is looking pretty full, and it seems as though getting onto a seat may involve a vicious version of musical chairs, then we must not give up hope but recall Shirley Chisholm who urged us “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But we can’t stop there. When we hold open the door, when we sit at the table, in our folding chair or otherwise, we should make sure to bring along extra chairs so that others who are underrepresented know that there is room.

We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those that we have of ourselves.” Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and when she got there, she did not close the door after herself. Recognizing that there is more power in the group than in the individual, in addition to helping found the National Organization for Women, she was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. With a campaign that included a focus on racial and gender equity, Shirley Chisholm ran for president, becoming the first Black person to run for president for a major party and the woman to run on the Democratic ticket. She worked to address food inequities, spreading the foot stamp program to all jurisdictions through the 1973 Agriculture and Food Protection Act and was instrumental in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). She also fought for the rights of workers, with a 1974 bill that expanded minimum wage rights to, among others, domestic workers. All this is just scratching the surface of how tirelessly Shirley Chisholm worked to lift as she climbed.

Of her run for President, Shirley Chisholm later wrote in her book, ‘The Good Fight’, “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” After her, she surmised, when anyone else from a group that people were “not ready” for, that person would now be taken seriously and also, having seen Ms. Chisholm do it, that person would know they were not alone in refusing to accept the status quo. Shirley Chisholm was wise – folding chairs are light, so don’t skimp on the extra chairs you bring with you. And don’t wait for permission, as she shared in her book ‘Unbought and Unbossed‘, Shirley Chisholm knew that waiting for permission could mean waiting forever. The status quo, stereotypes, barriers? They are all there to be broken.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters My Two Cents Where We Are

Altogether Something Different

Several years ago, I was on a team planning a conference and we were looking at the list of women who had been proposed as speakers. As I perused the list I noticed that all the women on this list were white women. “We need to have a diverse slate of women,” I said. “We can’t have people coming to this conference and believing that the only women who are eminent thinkers are white women. We need to be able to reflect that our thought leaders and earth shakers are not a monolith and are instead, representative of the world in which we live.”

One of the planners retorted, “This isn’t about race, this is about women.”

Reflexively I responded, “Well when I wake up in the morning, I don’t get to choose which one of those I shall be that day.”

In 1976, five Black women, including Emma DeGraffenreid, brought a race and gender discrimination case against G.M. with the allegation that the company’s seniority system, in a last-hired-first-fired layoff program, perpetuated the effects of historical discrimination. This was because G.M. did not hire Black women prior to 1964. G.M. fought back stating that they had, for a while, hired Black people and women, glossing over the fact that all the Black people they had hired were men and all the women they hired were white. Unfortunately for DeGraffenreid and her co-plaintiffs, she lost her case because the courts felt that claiming both racial and gender discrimination would give her “super-remedy” and, therefore, preferential treatment. It seems the courts felt Ms. DeGraffenreid could have left one of those things, her gender or her race, at home when she went to apply for a job. If only the courts had shared how to work this magic with Bernadine Coles Gines. It then may not have taken three years for her to get work with a CPA firm if she had been able to apply as just a woman with the firms that would not hire Black people, and as a Black person, with the firms that hired Black people but only if they were not women.

In 1989, 25 years after the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to discuss the unfortunate synergies that arise when various characteristics intersect in one individual. As she explains it DeGraffenreid’s situation could not be viewed as a case of someone who was a Black person and a woman but as a case of a Black woman, who faced a particular discrimination because she was at the intersection of race and gender.

Transgender people face a significant amount of discrimination in the United States and in 2020, their unemployment rate was 13%, twice the national average of 6.5%. However, within that 13%, the Black transgender rate was double that, at 26%, illustrating the devastating impact of the intersectional discrimination. In addition, the intersection of transgender, Black, and female is where, by far, the most violence is suffered. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans and Black transgender women accounted for two-thirds of the total deaths recorded since 2013.

Ignoring intersectionality often results in the disappearance of people at the intersections, as though a massive sinkhole appeared right in the middle of the intersection and swallowed them right up. Examples include:

  • When San Francisco tech companies implemented diversity programs, the representation of white women in management improved significantly but these programs did not improve Asian women’s chances to be promoted into leadership roles.
  • In Belgium, the resumés of equally qualified Maghreb/Arab women were overlooked in favor of native/Belgian applicants for high-cognitive jobs.
  • LGBT+ women with disabilities face far higher levels of sexual harassment than both men with disabilities and non-disabled men and women.

We cannot look at each other and either/or our intersections. The impacts of each social identity are magnified when they intersect and, at the same time, those at the intersection are marginalized until they vanish in conversations and action. We should ask, for example, if a woman’s initiative in a workplace is benefitting all women in that workplace, or if an initiative to advance racially underrepresented people in a company does not result in benefitting mostly racially underrepresented men while ignoring racially underrepresented women. The gender pay gap of 81c for every dollar earned by men, masks that this gap is 75c for American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic women. Ignoring intersectionality leads to the dangerous vanishing of many in our communities – incomes vanish, discriminations vanish, and violent acts vanish. This is why we need to recognize, as Kimberlé Crenshaw said, the urgency of intersectionality.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props

Black History is Our History

That’s My Mom! Photo Credit: James Petrozzello

When I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, I was invited to a Halloween party. There was a costume contest and each of us had to say who we were and give some kind of blurb. Inspired by my mother I went as an official, working for some department (I can’t remember now) and my work had to do with justice and equality. I received the prize for most original costume. At a party full of superheroes, fairies, and movie characters, perhaps a public servant was a truly original costume. Often, though, when I think about it I feel that those parents felt sorry for my quite nerdy self. I don’t regret it – my mother continues to be my shero.

At this intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I think about how histories, ancient and as modern as just yesterday impact our present and our future. Then I got to thinking about my mother and her sisters and their influences on me, both overt and covert. They figure among the building blocks that make me.

When my grandmother was a young woman in pre-independence Zimbabwe, she traveled to the United States on a trip organized by the YWCA. When she returned home, her telling of her experiences, especially her trip to the Statue of Liberty, inspired her daughter, my mother, to go to the United States for college. I write this casually, like it was an easy thing for my mother but at the time, in her own country, she did not even have the right to vote, and needed permission to get a passport. Somehow, she figured out a way and she started out at the University of Rochester before she transferred to Mount Holyoke. It would be cute if she decided to attend one of the Seven Sisters because she herself was one of seven sisters but I am guessing her decision had more to do with her boyfriend, a fellow Zimbabwean whom she had met at a party in New York City and was getting his master’s in geology, down the road, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After Mount Holyoke, she too went to UMass Amherst and got her master’s in education, and they soon embarked on their next adventure. My parents moved to Zambia where my father worked as a geologist for an American company and my mother taught high school history at the International School of Lusaka. I once came across a yearbook from the International School in one of my mother’s storage trunks. In it, under her photo, her quote was “I am a citizen of the world” and I imagine one reason she felt that way was because she was barely seen as a citizen of her own nation.

After my little sister passed away, in February 2019, I spent several months in Zimbabwe with my mother and her sisters, appreciating anew what phenomenal women they are, and learning more of their histories. After my parents attended university, they decided to pay it forward, each helping a sibling to get to the United States for university. At the time, Zimbabwe was still not independent, and my mother’s younger sister could not get a passport. But she was determined to get out and go to school. At a point in her journey across the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, she was hidden in the back of a long haul truck, among crates of dried fish and rice. When she finally reached Lusaka and my father went to pick her up she was so frighteningly unrecognizable that my father, fearing the experience might cause a miscarriage, took my aunt to get washed up and changed before my then heavily pregnant mother saw her sister. After my aunt made it to the United States and university, she too paid it forward and brought another sister over for school.

Hearing the histories that my mother and her sisters shared I realized that, as with many marginalized peoples, we often do not hear about their struggles but we reap the benefits of their perseverance. I was with my mother during an impossible time and it was also a time to look at my grandmother’s daughters and see how I what they have done has made me. It was a time to be reminded how they have lived lives where, like the Coles sisters, they follow their desires and won’t be deterred and that is a spirit they have encouraged in their children. It is also a spirit that stands strong for what is right and a spirit that believes in the power of community. When my mother visits us in New York, she loves to take daily walks alone. I have no idea what she gets up to but it must involve a lot of chatting because, long after she leaves the subway station guy or the grocery store employee asks after her. She builds and maintains communities, believing that this is how we all help each other achieve what we seek. And she does do this, starting with the formidable core of her sisters.