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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.

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration

Honoring a First Lady

Chien-Shiung Wu – USPS

Imagine that you devise an experiment that has results so revolutionary that the most respected scientists in your field exclaim, “That’s total nonsense!” Repeating the experiment shows that you are correct and what you have shown is so incredible that the experiment is named after you – the Wu Experiment. Two scientists, seeking to disprove a widely accepted law of physics, Parity Law, had a theory that would disprove that law. They came to you for assistance with experiments and what you came up with was referred to as the “solution to the number-one riddle of atomic and nuclear physics”. Everyone knows that what you did was revolutionary because the two scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics. The surprise, to many, is that, apart from a single mention, almost in passing, in the ceremony’s speech, you get nothing. The consensus is that you were ignored and left out because you are a woman. It is such a big deal to those who were outraged by the perceived snub that, 21 years later, you receive the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics, a prestigious prize that states that it is awarded to “scientists for their achievements for the benefit of mankind and brotherly relations among peoples, regardless of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political views.”

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics, was born in China and had, what sounds like pretty awesome parents. At a time where this was not a widely held view, her parents believed so strongly that girls should get an education, that her father founded a school for them. With this kind of support, it is hardly surprising that Chien-Shiung Wu went on to graduate, at the top of her class, with a degree in physics. Her mentor, a female professor named Jing-Wei Gu, encouraged her to continue her education and, in 1936, Madame Wu (as she was often called) emigrated to America, where she would become a citizen in 1952. In 1940 she earned a PhD in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. Even though she had a doctorate and Nobel-prize winning mentors, Chien-Shiung Wu found that racism and sexism were much stronger than her qualifications. With World War II, anti-Asian sentiments were stronger than ever and ultimately, Chien-Shiung Wu moved, with her husband, to the east coast where she first taught at Smith College and then moved on to Princeton University, becoming the first woman hired as a faculty member by Princeton’s physics department. She left Princeton in 1944, to work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. Dr. Wu stayed at Columbia University until she retired and it was while she was there that her groundbreaking Wu Experiment helped Drs. Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang win the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was no stranger to being a pioneer becoming, among other things, the first female president of the American Physical Society and the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 2752 Wu Chien-Shiung. As she blazed her trails and opened doors, Dr. Wu made sure that the door was held open and she worked hard to encourage other women. After she retired, she continued to work tirelessly in education programs aimed at increasing the number of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (most popularly referred to as STEM). I am guessing that her passion was to build a future where women were not held back, were not overlooked, and were always recognized.

On February 11, 2021, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the United States Postal Service released a commemorative stamp in honor of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and her amazing achievements and contributions not only to science but also to championing women and girls in science. This is a fitting tribute to a woman who, in advocating for women to pursue careers in science voiced a sentiment I can get fully behind, “There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!

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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!

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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.