Women Supporting Women: Brave Leaders are Inclusive

Recently, I asked several women the following questions to better understand how women support each other in the workplace:

● Do you have a brief example of when a woman supported you in the workplace? 

● Can you share a time when you received peer support from a woman? 

● What was her race? 

Support in the workplace could look like the following:

● Serving as a mentor — helping to make critical career decisions

● Helping to strategically manage a career

● Assisting to build strategic relationships and allies across the organization

Each of the women acknowledged these are difficult questions to answer. If we were truly supported by other women in the workplace, the answers would have come easily. Most of the white women who responded said they felt very supported by men and women. In contrast, few of the women of color felt supported by white women. They mentioned having been supported either by a man or by another woman of color. 

When asked about peer support, white women and women of color often mentioned a female manager, often of the same race, but not peer support. This point is important because women need support across the workplace and sponsorship from women in the C-suite, most of whom are white. Exchange of experiences is vital to mutual understanding and support. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and share your perspective. 

I was in a workshop for diversity practitioners many years ago with Bill Proudman, founding partner and CEO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners. It reminded me that most white women don’t lead with their race; they lead with their gender. As a result, they don’t always understand the more complicated situations facing women of color. 

How we Become Exclusive
Tarana Burke, an African American woman, started the #MeToo movement in 2006. Her intent was to help women of color like herself who had survived sexual violence. More than a decade later, in October 2017, Ashley Judd accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. Alyssa Milano then tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Thus, white women replaced Tarana Burke as the face of #MeToo. Burke stated her frustration about who was now setting the agenda of #MeToo, saying, “Watch carefully who are called leaders of the movement.” This lapse was also demonstrated by her being omitted from the Time magazine cover dedicated to #MeToo.

How we Become Inclusive
In a recent article, Octavia Spencer, an African American actress, shared a conversation she had with Jessica Chastain, a white actress, regarding pay equity. Chastain voiced the need for women to be paid the same as men for their work. Spencer explained to Chastain how women of color face the challenges of both gender and race. With that new awareness, Chastain successfully renegotiated both of their salaries so they received larger — and equal — amounts for a new movie they will both appear in later this year. For Spencer, that amount was five times what she was first offered.

Navigating Race when Addressing Women’s Issues
Addressing issues of race can be challenging for many of us to navigate in the workplace because the subject can be viewed as controversial — a topic we are socialized not to openly talk about, according to Kira Hudson Banks, PhD, an assistant professor who studies race and diversity at St. Louis University. Therefore, we don’t always proactively include the complex needs of women of color in our conversations or strategies addressing women in the workplace. 

I once asked a female CEO whom I worked with why her diversity strategy was limited to white women. When I reminded her that she was taking the easy way out, she responded that it had taken her five years to be comfortable talking about women’s issues, and it would take much longer to champion issues that affected people of color, as those issues were more complex to address. Her executive team had no people of color — men or women. A rising tide does not always lift all boats. If the CEO does not include all marginalized groups, diversity efforts will stall when that CEO leaves. 

Addressing one narrow area of diversity of the group to which you belong is not inclusive or sustainable. It’s not enough for white women to support each other; all women must be supported. 

How Do we Ensure that Our Inner Circle is Inclusive?
If we are not inclusive, the momentum begun by women like Tarana Burke will relegate women of color to the sidelines. As women, we must consciously bring other women along. We must evaluate whether we are exclusive or engaging and inclusive in our language and our actions. The use of language can be a starting place; we can ask questions in a way that is supportive and open to whatever the answer might be. 

When we gather socially, who is not invited? When we select women to mentor or sponsor, whom did we forget to ask? When we make important business decisions, who is not at the table? All women need mentors and sponsors to succeed in complex organizations. It’s lonely to be the only woman of color in the C-suite. Inclusive women leaders are courageous and seek to learn and fight for everyone, not just those who look like themselves. If we aren’t comfortable bringing all women along on the diversity journey, our success will be stunted, keeping us from reaping the full benefits of having more women in the boardroom.●

Anise Wiley-Little is author of Profitable Diversity and former chief human capital and diversity officer for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity editorial board.