The invisible goalposts for Black female athletes

July 9, 2021, 8:12 PM UTC

How do you spell Black excellence? Also, we need to talk about how we treat Black female high-performance athletes… and not only at Lululemon, and we get taken to creativity class by true meme royalty. My colleague, Jonathan Vanian is here to remind you: Just because your AAPI employees aren’t complaining, it doesn’t mean they’re happy with you. Consider this your wake-up call.

But first, here’s your pre-Summer Olympics week in review, in Haiku.

I will likely miss
the roar of the crowds, silenced
to prevent the spread

of a virus that
should have been prevented by
now, oh well. I

will surely miss the
arrival to the world stage
of America’s

fastest dream girl, a
woman who is living her
life and lessons out

loud. Faith! Sha’Carri
runs the long race, for
elders hers and ours.

We know you’re running the long race, too! Take extra good care of yourself this weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In brief

Buck Gee and Wes Hom know firsthand the difficulties Asian Americans face rising the ranks in the corporate world.

The two Chinese Americans landed high-ranking leadership positions at prominent U.S. tech companies like Cisco and IBM during a time when it was a rarity to see Asian Americans represented at the executive level. The two now dedicate much of their time to the Ascend non-profit, where they help Pan-Asian professionals deal with the complexities of climbing the corporate ladder.

And while corporate boardrooms are more likely to discuss diversity issues in the workplace than years past, the reality is that Asian Americans are still rarely promoted to significant leadership roles

One of the reasons is that many executives believe all is well for their Asian American workforce. After all, most Asians aren’t complaining about being overlooked for managerial roles, so why bother fixing a problem that doesn’t seem to exist? But, of course, these problems do exist—it’s just that the executives aren’t noticing them.

For instance, Gee recalls talking with two “very successful” big tech companies that employed few Asians in leadership roles. Representatives of these “data-driven” companies, which he declined to name, told him that based on their annual surveys on employee satisfaction, they found that Asian employees “are the happiest folks here.”

“They don't complain about anything,” Gee recalled them saying. “If they’re not saying there’s a problem, we’re not going to fix it.”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

In these scenarios, the executives seemed aware that they weren’t promoting Asians to leadership positions, but were content to let annual surveys dictate their actions on remedying the issue. There was no desire to dig deeper into the data, to understand why this population may be reporting that they are “happy,” yet aren’t being promoted to high-ranking roles—a sign that managers value their worth. There was no desire by these “data-driven” companies to correlate the two discrepancies. As long as no one calls them out, all is well.

As the recent societal reckoning over systemic racism shows, however, the times might be changing.

The younger generation of Asian American workers appear more willing to speak out on inequities in the workplace. This is a big deal because traditionally, Asian American workers have talked in lower voices than their peers.

Gee and Horn typically teach Asian American workers skills in relationship building, conflict management, and other related abilities that corporate America deems important to leaders. It’s not that Asians are inherently worse at these skills, but they may have grown up in families and cultures that valued different traits, like humility and conformity.

As Hom said, “no one is born with these skills.”

Younger Asian American workers, however, seem emboldened by the social justice movement, and are more willing to voice their concerns. Perhaps, this leads to more executives noticing their “silent” employees.

"I'm very encouraged that the younger generation is speaking up,” Horn said.  

And for all the executives out there managing Asian workers, please, do more than just send annual surveys that substitute as some form of human interaction. You don’t have to wait until someone complains. You can be empathetic.

Afterall, empathy is presumably a trait that corporate America deems important.


Jonathan Vanian 


On point

Sweet Zaila and the bee (and ball) The 96-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee celebrated its first African American winner last night, and already 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde has won the hearts of millions. The New Orleans-area native won the competition when she spelled “murraya” correctly; it also turns out that the dedicated student, who had been practicing her spelling drills for two years, is also more than a bit of a basketball phenom. Like, I’m not kidding. Avant-garde holds three Guinness world records for her dribbling skills. She hopes her success encourages others. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees and that’s a bit sad, because it’s a really good thing … and kind of is a gate-opener to be interested in education.” My lordt, the Netflix just writes itself.  #TeamZailz
Washington Post

Black female athletes are over-scrutinized and under-accommodated While we continue to process the news that U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson will not be competing in the upcoming Olympics, reporter Nicole Chavez digs into the way Black women are treated in sports. Hormone testing has sidelined more than one athlete who was found to have natural testosterone levels higher than the sanctioning body allowed; swim caps designed “thick, curly, and voluminous hair,” or natural Black hair, have been banned by the International Swimming Federation. And would-be champions have been criticized for their activism, further tethered by International Olympic Committee Rule 50, which prevents any expression of activism. Oh, and remember how they drug tested Serena? Over and over and over….

Lululemon pulls a muscle Expect these stories to become more common; the post-George Floyd corporate commitments to appear responsive to issues of race and equity, slowly unraveling as employees point out the mismatch between what a company says and what it’s like to work there. This story, about tension inside the aspirational activewear company Lululemon starts with a specific “all lives matter” anecdote, and continues to unfold in ways that show the company got inclusion wrong from the start. (Their once stated ideal consumers were two white wealthy, thirty-somethings iconically named Duke and Ocean.) As the microaggressions piled up, employees began to revolt. One employee tells Business Insider that the company "privileged white wellness" in a way that reflects that wellness industry at large.
Business Insider

The meme queen gets her due The beautiful side of this modern age is the way that creators have been able to use tech tools to tell stories and comment on society in extraordinary ways. Enter Quinta Brunson, known best for her exceptional meme work — she is purported to be the first to create a viral Instagram video — although she is a regular on Buzzfeed and “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” In her new memoir, she explains how she was able to stand out from the crowd as an aspiring actor in Los Angeles.  She circumvented the audition circuit and built her own portfolio. “I’d create my own scene, my own culture, right there in the middle of Hollywood!” she writes. She Memes Well also digs into the unique roadblocks facing Black women in entertainment. Hey, she got second place in the winter Olympics, so she’s doing something right.
Los Angeles Times

A once-controversial book finds a new audience Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. generated alarm when it was published in 2001; specifically that professors Ella Bell Smith and Stella Nkomo — regarded as “organizational behavior royalty” — would put their tenure in jeopardy if they published it. The book studies the experiences of 120 Black and white female managers to explore where race and economic status, and not just gender, play a role in their career outcomes. Now, twenty years later, an updated version of the should-have-been iconic book drops on August 10. Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary signed petitions to get the book re-issued and speaks with the authors in this episode of her Leading Diversity at Work podcast series. (H/T  Enable Leaders on LinkedIn. Thanks Jonathan!)
Knowledge @ Wharton

This edition of raceAhead is edited by Ashley Sylla

Today's mood board

RaceAhead-Florence Griffith Joyner-Olympic Athlete
Florence Griffith-Joyner (aka Flo-Jo), who forged a path not only for the U.S. track and field Olympic team, but for future Black female athletes, including Sha'Carri Richardson. (Photo by Russell Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images)
Russell Cheyne—Allsport/Getty Images

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet