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.

At the Movies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props

Choosing to Challenge

Lilly Ledbetter at the NYSSCPA Women’s Leadership Forum

If this was a movie, it might start, in 1998, with a woman coming into work and walking over to a cubby hole, maybe one with her name on it. When she reaches in and to get her mail, she spots a scrap of paper among the envelopes. She pulls out the piece, sees the name Lilly at the top, followed by the names of 3 men. Next to each name is a dollar amount, next to Lilly’s name is $3,727, one of the men has $4,286 next to his, and another has $5,236 next to his. Maybe we see an expression on her name, or maybe we don’t even look for her reaction (I haven’t decided yet) but it is then we go back to 1979, where the same woman is walking in to her first day of work with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Lilly Ledbetter left her job as a manager at an accounting firm to pursue her dream, the love of radial tires. Even though her husband initially objected to this pursuit and even though the only women Lilly saw when she went to apply for a job were secretaries, she was undeterred and soon hired as one of the first women in a management position at Goodyear. When she started working at Goodyear, as they did with other employees, Lilly Ledbetter was told that she was prohibited from discussing her pay. She was told this even though, as is the general case, it was illegal to make such a prohibition. It took 19 years, and an anonymous note, for Lilly Ledbetter to discover that she had been paid less than her counterparts throughout her career with Goodyear. When she took her case to court, Lilly Ledbetter initially won her case but then Goodyear appealed. Their stance was not that they had not discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter but that she had taken too long to bring her claim forward. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in a 5-4 decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was unimpressed enough by this decision that she read her opinion from the bench.

At the New York State Society of CPAs, when we started planning our first Women’s Leadership Forum, we knew we wanted to have a session that discussed pay and wondered who we might have. A committee member suggested Lilly Ledbetter and I thought (and stated) it would be amazing, but would she really come to our event? Well, she did, and the story she shared was even more powerful and instructive than what I had read. When Lilly Ledbetter looked at that piece of paper, she realized that the impact went way beyond the current pay discrepancy. The impact hit every single one of those years that her employer paid her less than her peers, while her boss told her that he didn’t think that a woman should be working there. The impact hit the pension she would be receiving when she retired. The impact was going to hit what she was going to receive in Social Security payments. The discrimination was not a point in time in the moment at her cubby hole, it was cumulative over 19 years and the ripples spread wide.

Because Lilly Ledbetter lost her case in the Supreme Court, while not disputing that they discriminated against her, Goodyear never had to compensate Lilly Ledbetter. Inspired by her case and by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s powerful dissent, the first act signed into law by President Barack Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Now the clock resets with each discriminatory paycheck and, in a work environment where the discussion of salaries is still frowned upon and it is often a mission requiring Sherlock Holmes-like skills to find pay data, it brings some comfort to know that, whenever it is that we get that torn piece of paper in our mailboxes, it won’t be too late.

As I mentioned, Lilly Ledbetter ultimately lost her case and Goodyear never had to make up in any shape, way, or form for their years of discrimination. Lilly did decide that she wanted to do what she could to make sure her fate would not be the fates of others facing pay discrimination. She decided to Choose to Challenge, not just for herself, but for us all. She opened the door so that the rest of us can challenge too. So when you think about the rights we now have to challenge pay discrimination, don’t forget, Lilly Ledbetter did that!