Accept it – we’re all part of the changing face of leadership

businesspeople talking in meeting room and woman smilingBy Nneka Orji

Within the women at work discussion, there is a lack of diversity considering the fact that African-American, Asian and Latina women make up only one eighth of all women holding management and professional positions in the US.

Recently, President Obama, in his State of the Union address, supported the case for pay parity and ethnicity, citing that women generally make 77 cents on the dollar for the same job (and with the same education). There is an added nuance here as African-American and Latina women generally make 64 cents and 55 cents respectively. These numbers reflect the wage gap across all industries and classes of people in America, but how do these statistics impact those who identify as minorities on Wall Street or in Fortune 500 companies?

Changing perceptions
Being a minority can be a challenge. We all want to belong and when we feel like an outsider it can have a direct impact on how we shape our careers. According to a study conducted by Catalyst, women who feel ethnically/racially diverse – different to the majority – are also less likely to be mentored by C-suite and senior executives; 58 percent of those women who feel ethnically/racially different are mentored by this group, compared to 71 percent of women who do not feel different, 72 percent of men who feel different, and 77 percent of men who do not feel different. In addition to less access to senior level mentoring, ethnically (when manifested as race), the study suggests that women who identify with non-dominant groups in the workplace are more likely to lower their aspirations.

These diminished aspirations coupled with fewer mentoring opportunities can have a tacit impact in the initiatives aimed to increase this group’s representation at the executive and board levels.

Aspirations are linked to self-perception, so in order to achieve more notable progress women must change their self-perceptions. GEM’s 2012 Women’s Report showed that in all economies within their study sample, women perceived themselves to be less capable than men. While current corporate environments are likely not to offer the role models who look like “outsiders,” women do not need to look too far to find the reference points which support high aspirations as there are successful women all around them.

Business leaders must also work on shifting their mind-set as the real impact of misguided perceptions can still be seen throughout business. In a study run by the University of Utah, investors found IPOs led by female founders or female CEOs less attractive because they perceived women to be less capable than their male counterparts. While this study excluded race and ethnicity as a factor, a separate 2007 study found that over three quarters of the minority ethnic women surveyed felt that the leadership style of white women was more positively received. The image of competence and ability is changing, yet there seems to be slow acceptance of this fact.

In today’s increasingly global society and the corresponding more diverse workforce, the “outsider” will inevitably become the “insider.” Executives of all stripes will need the same skill set to successfully lead a diverse workforce, and it turns out that gender, ethnicity and race could be advantages. A 2013 paper by J.L. Chin, stated that, “Participative leadership is consistent with female gender roles and racial and ethnic cultural roles which value collaboration and collective action.”

Women from ethnic minority groups bring these characteristics to the table, and it is important that the multi-dimensional image of leadership is shared with everyone.

Undermining us – no winners
The way in which society deals with this change in the face of leadership will determine the integration of “outsiders” in business over the coming years. Undermining women, including those who are black or from ethnic minority groups, and the value they bring to our workforce, is damaging. McKinsey’s Women Matter 2013 report showed that companies with higher female representation at executive levels outperform their counterparts with no women in senior positions.

There are two things all of us can do to ensure that we are spreading the message that diversity at the top is a good thing for business.

“Insiders” can be the example
For those outside a minority group, it can be more difficult to fully understand these issues. However, being open to listening to the existing diverse groups within the workforce can be an effective starting point. Senior executives can try to understand their diverse talent pool in order to assess which aspects of their organisational structure might be leading to women and minority groups feeling excluded.

Mentoring and sponsorship is another way in which “insiders” can make a difference. Those women who are currently not mentored by C-suite and senior executives need guidance from executives to ensure they have the same opportunities to career advancing opportunities. Today’s leaders can set the example for the rest of their organisations to follow.

“Outsiders” can be proactive
It is always easier to be passive and accept what has already been defined, but for real progress on gender and ethnic/ racial diversity, the status quo must be challenged. In doing this, “outsiders” need to consciously and proactively change the definitions others have used for them. It might not come naturally for society to assume that a black, Asian or Latina woman is a leader, but it is important that these women are part of the discussion and representing the change we all need to see in our business today and in the future.
As an “outsider,” I know there are challenges ahead in my career. Lawyer and politician, Carol Moseley Braun, put it simply when she said, “Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.” Shaping my career in the way that works for me is a challenge, especially as it sometimes means going against expectations. However, it is a challenge that I am genuinely excited about because a diverse workforce will benefit all of us.

1 Response

  1. Darren Thomas Baker

    An insightful and well articulated article.

    Firstly, it highlights the complexity of gender. When talking about gender we must recall that gender intersects with other diverse aspects of identity, such as ethnicity. Bolstering women’s careers includes women from different ethnic backgrounds.

    Secondly, Nneka highlights the importance that leadership plays in leading an increasingly diverse workforce. Leaders need to show that to be successful, one doesn’t have to fit into a tight mould; instead, leaders and their organisations can endorse an array of identity options that individuals can choose to emulate. Work shouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all role’ that one assumes during the day, but a parallel, progressive construction of one’s identity over-time. This point is highlighted in Nneka’s quote from Carol Moseley Braun who points out the complex negotiations that diverse individuals have to face in environments that do not recognise or even appreciate the benefits of alternative ways of thinking or behaving.

    The business case is clear on the benefits of diversity and being oneself at work. Nneka’s article provides ‘food for thought’ for organisations and their leaders wishing to create organisational cultures that step into the ‘now’.