Large companies have under-promoted women of color and still pay them on average a fraction of what they pay white men.

But women of color are the fastest-growing segment of the corporate workforce, and have an opportunity to be the leaders of the new era for work, writes Deepa Purushothaman, in her book The First, the Few, the Only, due out March 1.

“We are the brokers of a new power,” writes Purushothaman, a former Deloitte executive who was the first Indian-American woman partner in the firm’s history. “As we become the growing majority of the educated workforce, we have an opportunity to be the change the world needs right now. We can come together and push against a system that was not constructed with our voices and truths in mind.” (p. 197)

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The First, the Few, the Only, whose title is a reference to the status of women of color in leadership in Corporate America, is a diagnosis of enduring inequities in the workplace. Drawing on interviews with over 500 women of color, Purushothaman details the physical, emotional, and mental toll of work environments that subject them to bias, aggressions, pressure to assimilate, undermining, and self-doubt.

She wrote the book to help other women of color “question everything” and redefine power in their own ways, and for everyone else to understand the need for a new playbook for leadership.

“I have spent my life living in competitive, high-performing, majority-white spaces, wondering why I was exhausted, confused, and drained of my power,” Purushothaman writes. (p. xiii) She experienced chronic health problems and a doctor once told her that her job was “killing” her.

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Purushothaman identifies the problems as structural: “Any definitions of power that are different from the white male heteronormative standard tend to be dispelled.” (p. xiii) Her prescription for change is at least partly captured in her list of new rules of power:

  • “Power over” others is done. “I love the idea that power needs to be coupled with safety, and that the leaders we gravitate toward should make us feel less guarded,” Purushothaman writes. (p. 186)
  • “Power within” is paramount. The business world hasn’t seen women of color as powerful, or leaders, and pushed them to suppress who they are. Purushothaman suggests power is about being centered, a “state of being,” a “take-me-or-leave-me” approach. “We need to wield our power in ways that feel congruent with how we think and live in the world.” (p. 188)
  • “Power for good” is stronger than power for self-gain. The power of standing up for things that matter can trump greed and exploitation.
  • “Power with” can redefine the rules of business. “Banding together as a collective is the most important thing we can do to create change,” Purushothaman writes. (p. 191)

Purushothaman’s advice to women of color:

  • Recognize the “delusions” around you. She diagnoses 10 de facto rules that hold women of color back, including the myths that they’re not penalized for failing to conform or for being candid about grievances.
  • Shed what does not serve you. That includes letting go of cultural messages that suggest women of color need to work twice as hard to get ahead.
  • Carry what makes you special. Purushothaman suggests anchoring oneself in the wisdom of ancestors, empathy and emotion, perseverance, and a sense of one’s uniqueness and completeness.
  • Listen to your inner wisdom, gut, and your body. “The biggest surprise in my research has been a trend I’ve seen among the most accomplished women of color: we are all exhausted, suffering, and yearning to find a way to keep our plates spinning,” she writes. (p. 68) Purushothaman advises going toward what makes you happy. (As well as drinking more water and getting outside more.)
  • Decide which extra roles you are willing to take on, if any. She identifies roles beyond their actual jobs that women of color assume, including representative of an entire race or culture, confrontational change maker, and unofficial diversity and inclusion advisor.
  • Respond to workplace bias and aggressions, but be patient with yourself. “Companies may try to cross your boundaries, confuse your facts, and discount your truth, but there is power in knowing where your line is,” Purushothaman writes. (p. 114)
  • Create stronger bonds with others. Purushothaman writes that women can undermine each other’s progress, reinforcing patriarchy once they make it to the top. “It is hard to live our power if we don’t have our sisters with us to prop us up and be there with support and compassion,” she writes. (p. 127)

As someone who “leaned in” and “fit in,” Purushothaman notably doesn’t advise doing that. She’s cofounded a membership community for women of color, and says she works to answer the following questions: “What do we believe about ourselves? What do we believe about the structures around us? What do we believe is possible if we come together? What do we believe our legacy should be as people of color?” (p. 125)

To be sure:

  • The First, the Few, the Only doesn’t go far enough in connecting the dots between the changes needed in workplaces and the profound shifts in the nature of work as we emerge from the last two years of the pandemic. How do new flexible and remote approaches to work change the dynamics for women of color? Surveys indicate, for example, that Black and Latinx knowledge workers are significantly more likely to agree with the statement “I am treated fairly at work” as remote work has stretched on.
  • Purushothaman succeeds at writing a book that’s relevant not only to women of color. Though there are sections—such as the chapter about deciding whether to leave an organization—that are less directly applicable for other readers.

Choice quotes:

  • “It was common to feel high and then low in the same moment. Something amazing would happen and then in the blink of an eye someone would say something ignorant.” (p. x)
  • “I literally typed you don’t have to see it to be it and kept it in an email. When I doubted my abilities, I would read that email to reassure myself.” (p. xi)
  • “DEI efforts don’t address—and cannot single-handedly solve—the real, underlying race-related issues in the workplace. These efforts do not hit hard enough at a toxic workplace culture that makes women of color want to flee.” (p. 15)
  • “If we want more diverse leaders to aspire to corporate spaces, leadership must be redefined to include equality, empathy, fairness, openness, and heart. Power isn’t about becoming a CEO—it’s about being able to be true to who you are, what you believe, and what you stand for.” (p. 16)
  • “The current rules and structures within corporations are antiquated and reflect a white, male leadership structure. They are set up to protect companies and cover up issues instead of creating transparency.” (p. 118)
  • “White male leaders have to do the work to understand how they are showing up, how to make space for others, and how it is their responsibility to help influence what comes next.” (p. 134)
  • “If we are going to heal the game of power, it’s time to take apart the delusions we have been taught about capitalism and the underpinnings holding it up, such as meritocracy, scarcity, and competition.” (p. 192)

The bottom line is that The First, the Few, the Only provides an important analysis of the experiences of women of color who navigated bias, aggression, and all manner of cultural pressures en route to corporate leadership roles. It’s a playbook for women of color and a broader call for a healthier, more equitable approach to power.

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