A Call for Courage in the Workplace

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“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”― Frantz Fanon

I often recall a childhood memory that embodies both my grandmother’s aspirations for me and the cultural barriers I would face to achieve them. On a typical tropical afternoon in the Dominican Republic preparing for lunch, I vividly remember my grandfather in his caring yet gruff manner complain to my grandmother that she was “ruining me because I didn’t know what to do with myself in the kitchen”. My grandmother’s quick retort was “she doesn’t need to know how to cook and clean, she’s going to be a professional”. I would later come to understand that profound statement as both an affirmation of my worth and a subversive act against the standards of her time. Her critique of the social norms that would assume my place, and that of any woman, should be in the kitchen were manifested in her rejection of me learning how to cook or perform any domestic chores outside of maintaining a tidy room. While I have often joked that I could have benefitted from a few basic cooking lessons, I’m grateful for my grandmother’s courage to forge a different path for me. She was one of my first champions and model for equity and inclusion.

I have indeed become a “professional woman” with corporate experiences in Finance, Media & Entertainment and Technology sectors. And in a tribute to my grandmother’s defiance of cultural norms, I have built a career reshaping workplace cultures through equity and inclusion. Unfortunately, what remains constant in the corporate workplace is a gender and racial disparity, a large misrepresentation in leadership of those not from dominant cultures - largely white, male, able-bodied and heterosexual. With great pain I have especially watched women of color marginalized and belittled to a soul crushing level because of misguided expectations and lack of supportive environments. The daily indignities faced by those different than the norm, when accumulated, can irreversibly change the course of a career, limit economic potential and diminish dreams. These workplace occurrences show up in many ways: dismissive language in meetings, the omission from high profile work assignments, the unskilled manager who fears providing performance feedback but who lets his HR rep fire his employee for lack of productivity; and perhaps most painful, the people of color who have risen to senior roles and who complicity diminish other rising people of color to save their position in the pecking order. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

I have repeatedly seen talented women and men of color of all ages, sexual orientations, nationalities and abilities sidelined, marginalized and drawn out to invisibility. I’ve grown impatient with framing the problem as the burden of the underrepresented. What is needed are real champions and warriors for change - men and women - willing to uncover the truths, call them out, and change the operational structures and processes that permit unfair treatment and disparate outcomes.

In the wake of the social misconduct reckoning our country is facing, I’m struck with the courage of women who despite facing intense pressure to not speak out against sexist and predatory behavior, have stood up defiantly for truth. The dominant culture of misogynistic oppression has especially pressured women to remain silent, whether to protect the careers of their abusers, protect their own prospects for advancement, or to avoid shame and stigma. That silence, and in many cases extreme coverups, has sustained and rewarded complicit actions and insular standards of workplace behavior. For that behavior and its supporting systems to stop, institutions need to pay attention to power dynamics and leaders need to be consistently held to a high standard of behavior. Women, like my grandmother, must continue to resist, and those with power must protect and empower them to reach their full potential without fear of reprisal, misconduct or abuse.

The spillover effect is real and there is no better time than now to act beyond the standard evaluation of internal policies and subsequent trainings to remind employees of the actions that should not have been acceptable in the first place. Everyone in the workplace should be asking not just “when will this end?” but “how have I supported these practices and behaviors in visible and invisible ways?”, “whose voices have I have not heard from yet?”, “how do I help amplify those untold stories?” and “how do I help others put an end to this?”. Small and determined actions like those of my grandmother’s can change not just one life but many.