Use this Women’s History Month as a launchpad, not a resting place

By Cosette Strong

Women’s History Month has long been one of my favorite months of the year. When I was younger and less cynical, I was encouraged by people’s acknowledgement of women’s contributions in newspapers or online articles. Over time, though, I noticed that many of these words were actionless virtue signaling and my disappointment would deepen.

Change can happen if we’re willing to do the work. The issues impacting women in corporate America continue to be serious. This was the case before 2020 set the world on fire. The TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) of all of this? A 911 for corporate America. According to McKinsey and Company’s 2020 report on Women in the Workplace, “… More than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely …companies risk losing women in leadership — and future women leaders — and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

Welp.

The COVID-19 crisis set women back half a decade. But women of color? Our unique experience combines the toll of society’s racism, access to fewer work environments where we feel psychologically safe, a disproportionate level of adverse medical diagnoses due to allostatic load, less support from our managers and those in leadership and the heavy impact of a lack of access to equitable mental health care services.

If I didn’t already say it: America, we have a problem. But where there are problems, there are opportunities for solutions. Leaders, this is where you come in. This women’s history month isn’t a time to celebrate all that we did for the 31 days of March then turn on Netflix and rest until next year. This is a launching-off point for action. It’s time to dig deep. It’s time to get to work.

What does actively advocating for BIPOC women in the workplace look like?

  • Boldly address BIPOC women’s challenges in your companies. Head-on. Without apology and without softened words to make people of the majority culture more comfortable. A public and explicit acknowledgment of our disparate experience is an imperative move to retaining us as talent and helping us feel a better sense of belonging at work. McKinsey’s six-year data arc reinforces that year after year, we face more systemic barriers, receive less support from managers and experience more acute discrimination. So talk to us, hear first-hand what we experience, then go out and fight for us! If you, as our leaders, understand what we face, you’ll be better equipped to stand in the gap as BIPOC allies and model true leadership.
  • Think intersectionally when creating a JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) strategy. Don’t just focus on race or gender and expect me to split myself in two to decide which person I’ll be. Women of color are just that — both — all day, every day. By not taking our intersectionality into account in your strategic planning and data analysis, we’re being overlooked. When you set your goals and track outcomes for workplace satisfaction, invite us to the table so you can ask about what we experience when looking through our dimensional lenses. Then incorporate our voices into your strategies, systems and processes. Take a system that was never meant for our success and redesign with us in mind.
  • Work in threes when it comes to leadership development. We need coaching, mentoring and sponsorship. Just as you allocate funds for payroll, travel expenses (pre-COVID, of course), communication strategies and R&D, set aside monies specifically for BIPOC women. Create a three-tiered leadership development program to provide avenues for this important growth. No one in-house to help with developing and implementing the program? No big deal. Hire an external consulting firm to help you navigate the waters.
  • Coaching: No internal human performance coaches? Not a problem. There are tons of coaching practices that you can bring in to assist who will gladly partner with you to customize a program and serve your population.
  • Mentoring: Are you seeking BIPOC women leaders to be mentors? No issue there either because you have plenty of men and we need to hear their perspectives so we can grow and learn, too.
  • Sponsorship: Identify leaders with power and influence who are your key demographic. Tie their compensation and/or bonus structure to the number of BIPOC women they are active in developing (read: sponsor). Let’s see how many of them lean in.
  • Think Inclusively Always (TIA*). Did you know that fewer than one in three Black women report their manager has fostered an inclusive team culture? Now amplify that to account for the entire organization. Those numbers should blow your mind. This responsibility is yours, Leaders. If you want your people to know what strong allyship and inclusive behaviors look like, show them. Design anti-racist and allyship training, then roll it out to your entire organization. Make it mandatory (not just strongly recommended) and equip your people. If your organization has specific guidelines that communicate zero tolerance for unacceptable behavior, that’s a great first step! Take one more and communicate behavior that’s positive and inclusive. When you see something, say something. That means that when good things happen, celebrate them with the hope that others will follow. Thanks, In Advance*!

The path ahead may seem intimidating but is achievable. Will it take effort? Of course. Will you experience challenges? Probably with every step. But is it worth it for the up to two million (!!!) women considering leaving the workforce because of a lack of promotional opportunities and long-standing issues of racial bias and discrimination? Most definitely. Everything is manageable if you want it to be so.

Cosette Strong’s career as a JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) advocate began almost 20 years ago. She leverages her educational background as a journalist and historian by telling stories that create visibility for and amplify voices of those in underrepresented groups. She considers herself a cultural alchemist who lives life as a storyteller, human performance coach, learning architect and facilitator. In addition to her professional work, she is an avid Broadway aficionado and a culinary creative. She resides near Columbus, Ohio.

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