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Women of color can no longer buy into the ‘inclusion delusion’

March 28, 2022, 3:07 PM UTC
Ketanji Brown Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court nominee for President Joe Biden, departs a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington D.C. on March 23. Jackson had to face a barrage of Republican criticism centering on crime and race, but she is inching closer to becoming the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.
Julia Nikhinson—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Last week’s confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson cast a spotlight on the challenges women of color face in the workplace, from having their qualifications scrutinized, to enduring microaggressions, to feeling the pressure of representing an entire race in their responses and behavior.

Black women, and other women of color, saw their own experiences play out on a national stage while business leaders (at least those paying attention) were forced to confront the bias ingrained within their own companies. One thing is clear. Corporate America can’t go back to business as usual. 

In 2021, research revealed that one in three women of color was thinking of leaving her job. At a time when there is more focus than ever on keeping employees, WOC, as a cohort, are more actively looking around and jumping ship whenever they can.

As a former senior partner at Deloitte who left to start a company that helps women of color find their power through safe space and community, I get calls every week from senior women of color desperate for advice.

Some are six months into their new jobs, calling because they have yet to be given what they were promised: a reasonable budget, staff, direct reporting to the CEO.

Instead of celebrating that they’ve made it, the women of color I hear from wonder if they should leave. Others call wanting to share that after decades of suffering within existing structures they are ready to exit, to spearhead endeavors where they can create more welcoming cultures.

Last week’s hearings only opened the door for more women of color to leave. Why? Because professional women of color have always been victims of–and sometimes unconsciously complicit in–the “inclusion delusion:” the conundrum of being highly visible as the first or only woman of color at their organization and at the same time never feeling like they belong, are respected, or have power. Until recently, we have been taught to ignore these problems and keep working harder.

Companies have stepped up to the plate to hire us, flaunt us in team photos and charity dinners, and offer us up as evidence that they have a diverse workforce. However, they don’t pay attention to how challenging it is for us to feel a part of their cultures or what they can do about this.

The inclusion delusion fools employers–and the women of color who accept their job offers. When we arrive, we think our title and position of power will give us the opportunity to create change. Then the truth sets in: What’s being asked of us is to fit into an existing culture, not to evolve it.

My own research based on interviewing more than 500 women of color across industries has shown that we tend to stay in roles we outgrow or that disappoint us longer than other demographics. For example, when I realized it was time to leave my last job, it took me three years to do so. I feared the questions it would raise and the example it would set for the women of color coming after me. Plus, I had decades of conditioning to be thankful, silent, and grateful for the opportunities I was given, and to push through.

What happens when the gratitude wears off? What happens as more of us give ourselves permission to express our feelings? What happens when we are reminded of our worthiness? We know what happens.

Naomi Osaka chose her health over playing in the French Open and exposing herself to the stress of the press conferences and media interviews that come with it. Nikole Hannah Jones walked away from the University of North Carolina to teach at Howard after she was initially (and unfairly I might add) passed over for tenure.

As women of color, you need us more than we need your jobs. You need us because as the workplace becomes more diverse, you need diverse leaders with authentic power. Having been overlooked and underestimated, we’ve cultivated deep empathy and cultural competency as necessary survival skills.

As you finally do the work to reach better equity and diversity on the surface, you need us to change the power structures under the hood of your culture that are built on white male privilege and have excluded others who have plenty to contribute.

Making workplaces more inclusive isn’t a matter of just adding women of color to a few visible roles that sound lofty on paper. It’s about reimagining roles to redistribute and remake power. Ultimately, what’s the point of hiring leaders who are given no power to lead?

We must create spaces where companies can truly listen to what women of color have to say, and honor who they are. We must establish policies that support women of color and don’t penalize them when they tell their truth.

We are at a crucial turning point. Women of color are feeling our power and we are speaking more openly with each other about the delusions around us. We are walking out at the very moment companies are more desperate than ever to hire and retain us.

The last few years, and last week, have changed everything. We can’t go back, and the only way forward is for you and for us to recognize our importance.

Deepa Purushothaman is the author of The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America (HarperBusiness) and cofounder of nFormation.

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