Black History Month 2016 – Honoring African American Women in Business

Nicki-Gilmour-bioIn honor of Black History Month 2016, this month The Glass Hammer will feature interviews with notable African American women at leading firms on their career experiences, aspirations, and advice for other women in their field. all year long and over the past nine years ensures we profile women of all social identities and experiences and we have always stated from the beginning that we want our readers to have many different role models.

Much of anyone’s success depends on two factors, this begins with you and your personality traits and then the second factor is the direct environment you are in, so yes working in a good team and an inclusive firm does matter. But, do multicultural women have a different set of challenges? This is a very interesting and debated question and you are sure to get a different answer from every person that you ask. Research such as Catalyst’s work on the “Concrete Ceiling” for African American women in Corporate America, would show that there are specific systemic issues hindering the progress of this group.

Are you looked at for your gender or your ethnicity first? This is often a question that is pondered on this topic by academics and women in the trenches alike. The fact remains that when we look around we see fewer black women at the top than white women and much fewer women generally than men but this is not new news.

That is why we are here to show you that African American women are in senior positions and are leading teams and leading change. Like any of us, we can talk about our own experiences, since we cannot speak for all women everywhere, we cannot speak for all Black women everywhere either when we profile a small group, but we can provide a platform for interesting dynamic women to share their stories and personal career journey.

Black History Month for me at least is not only about celebrating African Heritage and Black people in history who should be remembered for their feats and contributions but also as a time for other people to acknowledge their whiteness and some of the systemic and historical privileges that have gone with that identity. A recent article published on demonstrates in a very visual way how we have privilege in different ways. How would you answer the questions asked? How does that match us with how others see you?

From a career advice perspective which is what we tackle here on The Glass Hammer, no matter who you are reading this article, you need to know that “You according to you and you according to them” are often different versions of you due to other people’s stereotypes. Having differing visible aspects such as being a woman or being of color has real consequences, often unseen to certain people in the dominant societal group who often are built to experientially learn and so find it hard to conceptualize other people’s experiences. Some less kindly call this a lack of empathy. On a side note, I would love to see a study of overlaps traits like empathy and voting patterns in US politics if anyone has that to share. Back to the point however, if you are a right handed person do you ever really have to think about how life is for left handed people? Probably not.

You don’t have to look too far in the press right now to see all sorts of weird mutations of racial issues that rage on. From people arguing all sides of the Oscars with #OscarsSoWhite with the entertainment industry’s seeming preference to reward one type of people, to Michael Jackson being played by Ralph Fiennes (really, too much to discuss here from all angles), to important issues regarding a potential future President being an overt racist. As a non- American, I have no issue getting political and I recently found myself intrigued by people who insist on saying “All Lives Matter” in response to the statement “Black Lives Matter”. The activist group aside for a second, let’s look at the constructs behind that rebuttal. As an organizational psychologist specializing in the diversity topic, this very sentence is so close to the themes I see daily in my gender work as men and women defend the patriarchy in a similar way, that being a system which favors men over women albeit often in a deeply held unconscious way. Even people with good intentions in that sentence who want to say they value all lives (those who have bad intentions need their own article) completely overlook the historical and actual dynamics in play. I see this often as it is a way for us all to cognitively convince ourselves that somehow by saying all people should be treated equally we find a way to dismiss, discredit or deny (the 3 d’s) the actual weighted and skewed reality of what is happening in terms of how people are grouped and on some level, treated.

Even the word multicultural can be considered controversial and many women who get pegged with this label ask why their culture is not considered like any other Americans. Good question and from my perspective as an actual foreigner working in America with Americans who then tack a heritage qualifier such as African, Irish or Italian onto their American nationality, I often wonder where the need comes from to differentiate so strongly. I do believe however there are legitimate reasons to do so as an uneven playing field based on one’s ethnicity seems to very much still exist in the USA and translates into the workplace due to humans being humans and carrying their biases and constructs into the skyscraper with them in the morning.

So what can you do? Ask yourself who is in your network and sponsor and mentor different types of people. Assume nothing and don’t expect people to educate you at their expense yet go the extra mile to break your own stereotypical notions of people in your team. Go to the multicultural network events with a friend just as you would expect men to be interested in your career as a woman, white women can lift as they climb and so if you find yourself ascending take all women with you, conscious that you are being inclusive in your actions and choices.

I hope I have made you think today. That is all I can ask, the rest is up to you.

We coach leaders in being inter-culturally competent and help them address how their constructs have been formed and how preferences that cause bias can be overridden when necessary. Political correctness can often hinder the real work.

Check back all month long to read about African American women who are making a difference at work.

By Nicki Gilmour