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‘Success Is Not a Solo Sport.’ How Workplaces Can Better Support Women of Color

11 minute read
Sue Suh is TIME's Chief People Officer.

When Minda Harts approached major publishers with a proposal for a book about how women of color can overcome adversity and thrive in the workplace, she was told that there was “no audience” for her idea. The irony is not lost on Harts, founder of a career-development company for women of color called the Memo—and now the published author of a book by the same name, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table. “Sometimes you’re told that your story might not matter,” Harts told TIME. “For so long I think black and brown women have been invisible inside the workplace. To encourage people to give themselves permission to tell their story is a beautiful thing.”

In a group interview with TIME staff, led by Chief People Officer Sue Suh, Harts answered questions about her personal experiences over 15 years in corporate and nonprofit roles, how companies can make effective change and what individuals can do to help improve their office cultures.

Sometimes being a woman of color at work can feel like a bundle of contradictions: wanting to prove that you belong in whatever room you’re in, and not be judged by what you look like, and yet being proud of who you are and not wanting to erase that. How do you wrestle with those two things?

When people say bring your authentic self to work, sometimes you still feel like you have to modify and contort yourself to what you think the status quo is. I’ve been told what my hair should look like, what name I should use on a resume. So you start to make compromises, which may seem small at the time, but you add those and they compound. I grew up in a predominantly white town, so I was always very used to being one of the only people of color. My full name is Yassminda, and when I was in kindergarten, my teacher could not say my name, so that meant that the other kids didn’t try saying my name. I remember coming home to my mom and I said, “No more Yassminda. It’s Minda from here on out.” I tried again in high school and college, and teachers still couldn’t say my name. So I said when I get to corporate America, I want to use Minda and I want to wear my hair straight. When I hear this idea of authenticity, it’s like, whose authenticity are we talking about? A lot of writing this book was about giving other women who look like me or have similar experiences the permission to figure out who they are and who they want to be in the workplace.

Here’s a fictional scenario: Say we’re going to publish a story on Korea. And there’s a thoughtful editor who thinks, “I know Sue’s Korean. I would love to get her views on this, but I don’t want her to feel tokenized.” And the editor is so worried about offending me that they never ask—but when the story comes out, I am surprised and feel unseen because no one thought to ask for my perspective. How can we better navigate these kinds of situations in real life, and help each other approach these conversations in a way that is mutually respectful and supportive?

That happens in a lot of different industries. If you and I have a relationship, then I don’t feel tokenized every time you come to me with something that you’re not sure about. But if that’s the only time you’re asking for my advice, then yes, I do feel some kind of way about that. For me, I still want you to come to me and ask, because I care about the company. We have to move past our caution. I would encourage each of us, even if it feels uncomfortable, to have the courageous conversations and be a courageous listener, because that’s how we solve problems.

You talk a lot about vocabulary—even the best-intentioned vocabulary—and how that can sometimes be misinterpreted. Tell me about the word “ally,” what that means to you, and how we can do better.

I’m happy that we’re using the word “ally” because we have to have something that we point to. But what would allyship look like if it was activated? When I first entered corporate America, I was in a car with two of my white male colleagues. It was summer, and I had orange nail polish on. My boss said, “You people love your bright colors,” and he and my colleague went on to laugh and joke about that while I’m driving the car. I was 24 years old and didn’t know what to say. What if my colleague in the backseat would have said something, would have not chimed in along with my boss? Another situation I write about is behind-the-scenes activism or allyship: when something is going on in the room and there’s this awkward silence, but then you come by later and say, “I’m really sorry that that happened to you. You’re so strong.” No, we need to be allies, in public, when it matters.

You’re very intentional and clear about what it means to be an ally: It really is being a partner in that person’s success.

It is a partnership that takes relationship building. If we get to know each other in a real way, then hopefully if someone said something to you I would step up and say, “I value her, and I don’t want her to sit at her desk for the rest of the day and internalize what they said.” Because you still have to go back to your desk and work hard and get the job done.

Once you do get a seat at the table as a woman of color, what does it mean to be there? Do you feel a responsibility to do something more with the position you’ve gained?

Shirley Chisholm said it best: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But what does it look like once you sit down? Even when I had a seat at the table, I was just happy to be there, so I never spoke up. I’d leave the meeting like, darnit, I should have said something, but I was nervous. You go through all these mental gymnastics. Eventually I realized that I’m doing myself a disservice—and I’m also doing future generations that come in the room a disservice—if I’m not securing my seat. Securing my seat is using my voice. So I took public speaking courses. It was bigger than me because I wanted others to be in the room, and in order for me to bring them in, I had to use my agency and voice.

What’s the best way for companies to educate themselves to eliminate bias or micro-aggressions?

It’s important that we give [books and educational material] to our colleagues because sometimes they’re not going to find these resources themselves—or they’re not thinking, “Maybe I’m the problem.” There are some white readers of the book who have reached out to me and said, “I was doing things that I didn’t even know were wrong because no one had told me.” We all have to educate ourselves. If we’re working with someone who’s trans or someone who might have a disability, we should all take the onus to figure out how to be better colleagues and create a better work environment. What would it look like if we read up a little and then said, “I read this thing, what do you think about this?” That’s a really good way to bridge the gap.

Women of color can often feel invisible even while sitting at the table. What advice would you give them when they hear their own colleagues talk, with good intentions, about the need to create a more diverse candidate pipeline for open jobs? In other words, what is a professional way of asking, “Wait … what about me?”

Oftentimes we’re going out to look for underrepresented groups or women when there are people who could be advanced right in our companies. As simple as it might sound, it goes back to that relationship-building piece. If there is a sponsor or mentor who you feel comfortable asking, you could say, “Do you think that you could go and talk to so-and-so about that? Because if they hear it from you it may land a little bit differently.” But I would also encourage you to lean into that courage and say, “Hey, guess what? We have some great people here.” If they don’t hear it from you, they may never hear it again, right? We all have influence in some shape or form, so it’s about being strategic in how we use it and knowing that our voices matter. We’re at the table, we’re in those rooms, for a reason.

How does one seek out or find a mentor at work if there is no formal structure for that?

It goes back to putting ourselves out there sometimes. When you’re working hard and putting your head down, you’re not getting to know people who are key decision makers or could be mentors or sponsors. In an elevator, you might see someone who’s in leadership or might be a mentor. When they ask you how you’re doing, use that time to say, “I’m doing really great and I’m working on this really great project.” Sometimes we sell ourselves short, and to put ourselves out there will help people remember and think of us for other things. Many people who became mentors to me, I didn’t have a formalized relationship with, but because we were building relationships or we’d see each other in different settings, I thought, “I’ll ask them questions about this because it seems like they have really good expertise.” Part of securing our seat is also realizing that success is not a solo sport. I need you and you need me.

Diversity “metrics” can be a challenging topic, as people of color do not want to feel as if we are there just to fill a category. But accountability is critical. What are your thoughts regarding concrete metrics for diversity, specifically for leadership to say they have certain measurements for the company?

If I’m a black woman sitting in a company and I see the founders or CEO always saying diversity matters, yet no one looks like me, it’s really hard to invest. The only way that we’re going to move to the next level is if we hold companies accountable by metrics, just like we do with equal pay—not just saying that you’re a diverse and equitable company but actually showing it. I was recently speaking at a company that’s just starting to get its legs on diversity and inclusion, and they did one thing I thought was really amazing: all of the women of color who wanted to attend this talk from different locations, they flew them in to be part of that conversation. That signaled to the women of color inside their organization that this matters.

We’re in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world, and still at least three times a week I get asked, “Where are you from?” I’ve come to appreciate the courage we can bring to those tiny moments every day, that we can simply say, “I’m from here.” And I belong here, with you, and let’s have a conversation. If we approach these moments with empathy, we can create connection rather than focus on differences.

For so long we’ve been carrying all these hurts. I talk about the workplace and broken hearts, and how over time, maybe we got passed up for that promotion or we didn’t get the raise, and we just keep putting that into the bag. What would happen if we got to redefine what success looks like? It requires us to shed some of that baggage—and as women, as humans, to give ourselves that permission to pack light, so we can enjoy our colleagues, and enjoy our workplaces, and enjoy the stories that we can tell.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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