I had a chance to briefly speak with the African-American woman after the event. She told me the evening had left her feeling invisible and undervalued — which was ironic because we were there to celebrate the value women bring to business. As an African-American male ally I felt the same, and it wasn’t the first time. I’ve seen many gender diversity events sidestep discussions of racial diversity. It’s a missed opportunity for women leaders, and especially for conscious women leaders.
Racial diversity and equality in the workplace are in line with conscious business values, essential for building a sustainable economy, and necessary in order to achieve gender diversity. Race is an extremely sensitive topic in the United States, and conscious women leaders have the life experience and leadership skills to make meaningful change around it. And perhaps most importantly, taking on an ally role for racial equality in corporate America offers conscious women leaders an opportunity to step into a position of increased strength and power.
“If our gender equality work doesn’t represent the concerns of racial minorities, it ultimately won’t represent the concerns of most women.”
TO HAVE A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY, WE NEED RACIAL EQUALITY IN BUSINESS
One of the important tenets of conscious business is creating shared prosperity, rather than economic inequality. Some of the most blatant examples of inequality in the US fall along racial lines. While we’re well aware of the social justice issues minorities face in the United States, there’s far less public discussion about the discrepancies in the business world. Minorities are dramatically underrepresented in top leadership (approximately 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are minorities), minorities who are equally qualified are significantly less likely to be interviewed or hired, and minority entrepreneurs are less likely to receive venture capital funding. This kind of underrepresentation translates into reduced economic power and reduced influence, which are at the heart of inequality. This dynamic produces poor minority communities that are locked out of economic prosperity and relegated to a cycle of multigenerational poverty.
The trends in minority underrepresentation are also on a collision course with US population trends. By the year 2044, the majority of US citizens will belong to what are minority groups today. In fact, the majority of US children under age five are already minorities. It won’t be possible to build a sustainable economy — one with shared prosperity — if the majority of citizens are locked out of important roles in the business sector. Population trends are important from a gender equality standpoint too, because the majority of women in the US will soon belong to racial minorities. If our gender equality work doesn’t represent the concerns of racial minorities, it ultimately won’t represent the concerns of most women.
CONSCIOUS WOMEN LEADERS ARE UNIQUELY QUALIFIED TO ADDRESS RACIAL INEQUALITY
In my executive coaching work, approximately 50 percent of my clients have been women. It’s something I’m proud of, and my female clients have helped me understand the alignment between gender equality and racial equality. Many of the stories my women clients tell me about their struggles in the business world outline exactly the same struggles I face as an African-American man. For example, women leaders in high-tech fields have overcome preconceptions that “girls” aren’t good at science or math. As an African-American man with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, I’ve had to overcome the preconception that I was better suited for athletics or the entertainment industry than engineering. My female clients speak of having their opinions automatically discounted in business meetings, and of being labeled “emotional” or “angry” if they express their views assertively. Most African Americans in the business world are well aware of having their opinions discounted, and African-American men especially have to walk a very fine line with assertiveness to avoid the “angry black man” label. These parallels have shown me that my experiences are highly relevant in the work for gender equality. I’m well-suited as an ally for women because I can directly relate to the challenges they face. The same is true for women leaders; their experiences enable them to relate to the challenges minorities face in the business world.
Women leaders have another strength as allies: their leadership skills. Race is a highly sensitive, hot-button issue in the US. Making meaningful change will require high levels of leadership skill in areas where women are often rated higher than men, like collaboration, inspiring others, and championing change.
ALLIES ARE POWERFUL
Allies are an important force for change. Perhaps the most significant example is in the LGBTQ rights movement. LGBTQ people make up a relatively small portion of the population — estimates range from 4 percent to 10 percent — and therefore don’t wield significant economic or political power. Yet in the last several years we’ve seen tremendous progress in LGBTQ equality, and it has come from the engagement of a large number of allies. Allies in any cause have a unique power to influence and drive change. That’s why I take my role as an ally for gender equality so seriously, and why women leaders have such an important role in racial equality.
Becoming allies for racial equality can also deliver an important benefit for women. When you take up the ally role, you step into a role of leadership and power — a role of driving change and making your voice heard. That is precisely how we want women to be seen in order to drive gender equality. So when a woman steps into the role of an ally, she also steps into her power.
A CALL FOR COURAGE
Those of us who are called to the conscious business movement are ultimately working in the realm of courage. Building sustainable ways of doing business that deliver prosperity for all requires that we confront centuries of flawed thinking, and that we risk uncertainty, criticism, and failure. The work towards racial equality is no different. We need to confront centuries of injustice, and the problems will not be solved quickly. It’s especially difficult work in this country because it demands accountability for a fundamental contradiction in our national identity: that the economy in the land of “liberty and justice for all” was actually built on racial inequality and enslavement — and that reality persists today.
You may make mistakes, and you may even encounter skepticism from minority communities about your intent — skepticism born from longstanding injustices. The answer to all of these challenges is courage: the courage to persist, and to recognize that racial justice is fundamental to a sustainable economy, and to gender equality.
I’m leaning in to my courage, too. Now in my work as an ally for gender equality, I emphasize its inescapable link with racial equality, and I make sure that questions like the one the African-American woman asked of the panel get answered. I’ve resolved to step up and speak out, to call on women leaders — especially conscious women leaders — to become my allies, too. If we want to change the world, we need to work together to bring equality to everyone. I’ll keep fighting for women. And I’m asking, right here, right now: can I count on you to fight for me?
HOW TO BE AN ALLY FOR RACIAL EQUALITY
Here are some specific steps conscious women leaders can take to become allies for racial equality in the workplace.
1 Listen and learn. The first step as an ally is to listen deeply and learn the concerns of the people you want to help. Avoid making assumptions, and seek to understand what they believe they need. Learn about workplace issues that may affect minorities disproportionately.
2 Use privilege to confront inequality. One of my biggest tools as a male ally for women is that my male privilege allows me to confront inequities in a very powerful way. For example, it is very powerful when a male leader speaks up about observing gender bias (for more on this, see page 100). White women can do the same thing for racial equality: speak up when you notice the lack of minority representation; challenge inappropriate stereotypes or assumptions; and address issues that may affect minorities disproportionately.
3 Build racial diversity in your company or organization. It’s important for allies to demonstrate action. Women-run companies and organizations that work in the gender equality space often lack racial diversity in their own hiring, especially at the leadership level. Take visible action by making sure women-run companies and organizations reflect racial diversity at all levels (see page 14 for more tips about recruiting for diversity of all kinds).
4 Be courageous, persistent, and patient. Race is a very sensitive issue. Building racial equality in the workplace means addressing centuries of disparities. Taking on this work means potentially having some uncomfortable conversations, and you may make some missteps along the way. Like the other types of change we are making in the conscious business movement, progress on racial equality is going to require the courage to fail sometimes, as well as the patience and persistence to remain engaged over the long run.
Gerry Valentine is the founder of Vision Executive Coaching. He helps build companies that work, and that work for all — supporting profit, people, and the planet. Gerry focuses on business strategy, innovation, and leadership. He has 30 years of experience with multiple Fortune 100 companies, an MBA from NYU, and a BS from Cornell University. Connect with Gerry on Twitter @gerryval or by email at gerry@VisionExecutiveCoaching.com.