Women Of Color: A More Difficult Road To Leadership?

Today we are all beginning a new week after Memorial Day, which for many marks the beginning of summer, but to all marks the day we celebrate all those who have given their lives for our freedom in all wars since 1865. Memorial Day weekend provides a longer weekend for most of us to rest, gather with friends and family, begin summer vacations, or just do some spring maintenance around the house in preparation for the rest of the season.

For me, it provided a little downtime to catch up on a couple of movies. One particularly was quite moving. The movie, Hidden Figures is a 2016 American biographical drama film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly about African American female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions. The film also features Octavia Spencer as NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as NASA engineer Mary Jackson. Even as these brilliant women were critically relied upon in the mission that enabled the first American astronaut, John Glenn, to orbit the earth three times in 1962, they continued to be subjected to discrimination by their peers and their communities. They persevered against all odds to serve as silent partners in their roles as human computers for some of NASA’s greatest accomplishments. Not only were they women working in a field of technology, they were women of color working in the field of space science!

In my sessions with various organizations, I am frequently asked if I believe it is often more difficult for women of color to be promoted into leadership positions than for Caucasian women? “Yes” is the answer to that question. I do believe it is more difficult, for all of the same reasons more women of any ethnicity are not hired or promoted into senior leadership roles. Leaders simply are not focused on it and we haven’t built the cultural expectations to approach the challenge in an effective way. Current senior leaders tend to hire from the networks they know and do not make the necessary effort to find or identify candidates who come from different backgrounds or social circles from which to build their bench of talent.

The question that follows is always “How do we change that?” The answer is not nearly as complex as the highly formulaic answers to the questions mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson had to answer. But the answer is also not just one step. The first step is that we, as leaders, must stop accepting that we either don’t have or can’t find the candidates. They are out there. We must make the extra effort, and connect with people outside of our typical networks and circles to find them.

In my new book, Money On The Table, How To Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership, Chapter 10 provides Ten Steps to get more gender balance in our leadership teams. These same steps apply to getting more gender balance in ethnic diversity as well. By not accepting the status quo and taking these actions, we will all benefit from the enhanced communication, thinking and problem solving that results from having gender-balanced leadership and additionally from female minorities. You can learn more about The Ten Steps as well as the role women play in technology here.