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.