Career Advice Featured

“You can’t be it if you can’t see it.” Panel addresses barriers to women of color in the C-Suite

Four women of color in leadership roles shared their experiences and advice for aspiring leaders at the Women’s Leadership Summit earlier this month.

Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, moderated the panel, which included former Briarpatch Youth Services CEO Gloria Reyes (who is currently running for mayor of Madison), Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County CEO Sandy Morales, and University of Wisconsin head women’s basketball coach Marisa Moseley.

Holsey noted that only one in 20 C-suite executives are women of color. Subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination “creates a broken rung in the corporate ladder,” Holsey said.

It’s a legacy of broader societal issues, Morales said.

“We’re talking about hundreds of years of women in general just not having the same rights and liberties as men. There’s all this a lot of this terminology surrounding males and men always having that position of power,” she said. “Change, unfortunately, happens slowly.”

“Organizations …  have been attempting to recruit (women of color),” Reyes said. “But once you get somebody hired, it really is hard to retain and provide an inclusive environment. (Companies) haven’t looked at their culture to ensure that they value what women bring in leadership roles.”

“There’s also a pacification that’s happening,” Moseley said. “‘We’ll put you in middle management, but we’re not going to elevate you to those higher levels.’ So we can say yes, we’re doing this. But we’re not necessarily elevating.”

It’s a self-sustaining cycle, too, Moseley added.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she said.

Moseley said women, especially women of color, can run into challenges in workplace culture.

“I think there’s a lot of times you’re put in a position to pick and choose your battles,” she said. “You don’t want to come off as this stereotypically bossy or a woman who is difficult to work with. When you’re trying to push for progress, and when you’re trying to assert yourself, you’re constantly playing this game of how much to push, how hard. You add in the layer of the woman of color, and as a Black female, the angry Black female trope. And now all of a sudden, you’re fighting centuries-old stereotypes about Black women and women of color.”

Women of color also just don’t get as many opportunities to take risks on their way up that corporate ladder, Moseley said.

“(Women of color) have a very small margin for error,” she said. “We potentially only get one opportunity, whereas oftentimes our white counterparts are getting multiple opportunities. And if they stumble along the way, somebody will pick them up and give them another chance. And that very often is not the case for people of color, especially women of color.”

Corporate policies like family leave can also help or hinder a woman’s chances at success.

“If we don’t have policies that allow us to be mothers, and also have a career, that is also another reason why we see women not progressing in leadership roles,” Morales said.

Morales recalled a rather toxic corporate culture early in her career, where she was the only person of color in the office.

“I just remember that culture being so toxic. It can really derail you. You can start thinking, ‘what’s wrong with me, I’m not fitting in, I need to change,’” she said. “It can really just make such an impact on you and your career. You’re thinking, ‘I need to settle, I just need to be okay with where I’m at, so I can get along with everybody.’”

All four panelists advised not compromising your identity, even if it feels like the easier path.

“You have to keep what you have, you have to keep your culture. Don’t let that go,” Reyes said. “Don’t assimilate to the majority culture. Because what you bring naturally is a huge part of who you are. That will set you apart. It’ll take some time, but it’ll set you apart eventually, if you just keep at it. I honed in on my culture to strengthen my leadership.”

The panelists also advised companies to create effective mentorship programs, or at least facilitate informal mentorship – but to be thoughtful about how those programs work.

“Oftentimes, organizations look at mentorship programs as, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s Latina, now we’re going to set her up with another Latina,’” Reyes said. “I think we should really just reevaluate that and really hone in on the individual skills where the person wants to go, how do they want to grow, and match them with somebody who can help them accomplish that.”

“I think that that’s a really lazy and ignorant way to match people when it comes to mentorship,” Moseley said. “Oftentimes you have to go outside of what is comfortable, what is the norm or what seems to ‘make sense,’ and really put yourself in a position (to be mentored by) somebody who has a different life experience than you. That’s how you’re going to change. That’s how you’re going to grow. Growth happens when you’re uncomfortable.”

Morales echoed that, adding that sometimes some humility is required in seeking mentorship.

“Sandy (Morales) was my mentor when I started as the CEO of Briarpatch Youth Services,” she recalled. “She’s a lot younger than I am. But it was a new opportunity for me. I had never been a CEO of a nonprofit. And I just chose Sandy …  I just attached myself to her on specific issues that I was dealing with.”

Moseley also said organizations should be intentional about giving women, and women of color especially, genuine opportunities. She noted her own experience as an assistant coach under the legendary Gino Auriemma, the white male head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.

“In that position, he had all women on his staff, and was constantly empowering us to become great coaches, regardless of our skin color,” she said.

Now as a head coach herself – one of only a few women of color at the top of NCAA’s Division I – she sees it as her responsibility to bring more women of color along into leadership roles.

“I look at it as an incredible responsibility that I carry this torch for other women, and that I need to blaze a path,” she said. “If there’s not a seat at the table, bring your own chair. You have every right to be in any room that you walk into. The next generation of female leaders (should) expect to be in spaces as opposed to apologize for being there.”

All four panelists said patience and perseverance are key.

“Stay the course, but be excellent at what you’re doing,” Moseley said. “Understand that it might not come when you think it should come. But when you keep your head down and keep working, and put yourself with mentors, and put yourself in positions that fit you and make sense and where you can excel, then your leadership opportunities will reveal themselves.”