When I Didn't Get It Right
The recent college admission scandal has the nation reflecting on bias and elite entitlement. For some, the story evokes visceral reactions born out of a lifetime working twice as hard to be given half a chance to succeed. Others, wrestling with their privilege, feel painfully complicit in supporting social disparities. These emotional contemplations underline real tensions in our society. The fact is that we all equally benefit and are harmed by systems of oppression. As an inclusive leadership strategist who has lived at the intersection of identity my entire life, these conversations have resurfaced my own personal struggles trying to build diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces. Throughout my career, I have been inside the leading companies solving for complex issues of workplace culture, identity, access, opportunity and power, because I want to make workplaces work for everyone. And there have been moments when I haven’t gotten the work of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) right.
When I was the global head of Diversity and Inclusion at Moody’s Investors Service, we piloted Multicultural and Women’s groups as part of our efforts to empower and engage employees. As we were about to launch our official Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), one of the founding members of the Multicultural pilot, who self-identified as gay, courageously confronted me with one question: How can you speak about creating safe spaces for everyone and not launch an LGBT (the “Q” came at a later time) ERG concurrently? The honest answer? Fear. Fear that I couldn’t garner the right level of support. Fear that it could risk the other launches. Fear of failure.
In the same way that I have asked my white friends and colleagues to step outside their own privileged experience to consider the inequities and uncivil behavior endured by women and people of color, I was being held accountable to do so for colleagues missing from the conversation.
I have learned. I’ve confronted my fears, and my own privilege as an abled bodied, cisgender, heterosexual Caribbean Latina. And I’ve grown increasingly committed to intersectionality as a means to build sustainable change — and to get it right. I’m proud to share that we not only launched Multicultural, Women and LGBT ERGs all at once, our CEO personally sanctioned the LGBT&A (Allies) ERG. He held space for LGBT employees. He listened to their stories. And he encouraged all to engage authentically with peers, with his full support.
And yet, noticeably absent from our ask was the lens on people with disabilities. Again, my blinders as an abled bodied woman blocked me from thinking of an important community: the more than one billion people around the world who live with one form of disability or another. Since then, the topic of disability hit home. Fifteen years ago, my primo hermano (loosely translated to first cousin in Spanish) was paralyzed from the chest down after being shot by a sniper in Fallujah, Iraq. Until then, I had not had to think about securing ramps to enter my apartment building, nor considered whether the doorways and hallways of my home were wide enough beyond the standard ADA regulations to help someone in a large wheelchair move around comfortably. And in the workplace, I hadn’t considered whether my colleagues who were hearing or visually impaired were thoughtfully included in meetings.
So how can we get it right, whether you’re a DEI professional or a leader/ally trying to cultivate diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace cultures?
1. EMBRACE COURAGE
To build more diverse, inclusive and equitable organizations and communities, requires a deep conviction in the power of inclusion coupled with a healthy dose of grit and resilience. It requires us to act with courage to tell our story, raise awareness, build capacity and to create spaces for those whose exclusion from organizations and narratives shapes unequal outcomes.
When I was a credit risk analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, a fellow analyst and I were called into our manager’s office to talk about our “presence in meetings.” This manager single handedly diversified the public finance department, years before the diversity and inclusion team that I launched was even considered. She was intentional in hiring the most diverse team in the organization and was committed to helping underrepresented groups thrive. To this day, she remains one of my most beloved and respected managers.
That afternoon she kindly encouraged us to exert our voice in meetings and contribute more actively. She went on to share that she experienced us as “silent, when our opinions were sought.” As a credit risk analyst, you’re expected to contribute to the rating rationale in decision-making meetings where every opinion, irrespective of seniority, counts equally. A great place to hone your voice, but at the time, I was just learning to find mine. My colleague listened to her patiently and responded, “I appreciate your feedback but I need you to understand why I’m quiet. I’m a big, black man. I’m trying to make everyone in that room comfortable rather than threatened by my presence. So what you experience as silent participation, is the mechanism I use to make people feel at ease.”
His take was honed by years of sticking out while trying to blend in. As a Latina from the Caribbean, usually the only woman, person of color and/or youngest team member in those meetings, I also often felt vulnerable and alone. Thanks to his courage in speaking his truth, our manager became more attuned to the experiences and reasons for why employees of color experienced the workplace differently, and was more intentional in creating a team culture that enabled all voices to be heard. And I leaned in to find my voice, my truth, my courage, with the support of my manager and colleagues.
This experience further inspired me to advocate for colleagues who were marginalized and most vulnerable to harmful workplace bias, and to help leaders understand the experience of the people on their teams, the people for whom they are responsible for. Finding the courage in each other, and with each other, to tell our truth and share the truth of others, is critical on the road to true inclusion.
2. GROUND YOUR ACTIONS
Whether you do this professionally or because you want to be an effective ally, fighting for inclusion and safe workplaces can be exhausting. Connecting across our differences can feel both energizing and scary. Yet learning to hold space for each other as we navigate our intersected lives can help us meaningfully address cultural conflict, build understanding and nurture empathy.
In the corporate landscape, those of us who identify within the minority culture often operate in cultural dissonance. We walk hallways, sit in offices, and present in meetings with colleagues who don’t always understand our experience — how we struggle with impostor syndrome, how we guard our every action and reaction quietly fighting against the negative perceptions of the groups we represent, and the high emotional and physical price we pay when we have to work harder to be recognized. We listen to experts speak of growth markets, often lacking the nuanced perspective that we can contribute, if included. We participate in diversity presentations that speak about “us” to “us”. And we do this while being surrounded by support staff who clean and fix our offices, serve us our lattes, and stock the kitchens, who more closely resemble the communities we represent. For me, navigating this combined sense of privilege and isolation with a clear sense of mission and purpose has helped reduce what can feel like an emotional grind.
We can’t create space for others to change and grow if we don’t ground our actions on the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. This requires clarity on how our personal stories influence our identity and the way that we engage with people, listen and learn, make decisions. Only then can we promote the inclusive/respectful workplaces we all yearn for.
3. DEMAND THAT YOUR LEADERS LEAD
Organizations cannot simply launch “diversity and inclusion programs”, deliver communications campaigns aimed at showcasing optical diversity, make a few key hires, and expect results. Instead, they need to focus on rewiring organizational systems and resetting workplace cultures.
This work begins at the top. An inclusive leader is one who articulates a clear case for organizational change, sets concrete goals with key benchmarks, and models welcoming and respectful behavior. An inclusive leader requires structured, well-resourced and clearly articulated strategies/action plans, as they do with any other business priority. Executive platitudes and superficial agreements have no place in the workplace of the future. And yet too often this work is relegated to employees who are ill-supported and ill-equipped to drive real and sustainable change. You can encourage your leaders to do right by all of their employees, especially those tasked to lead this hard work.
In my experience building diversity and inclusion strategies, we tend to focus on one thing when we’re talking about diversity. The numbers. Those potentially misleading measures of progress like increasing headcount. That’s what our obsession with elite colleges is doing, too. But we miss something critical when we’re focused on the quantity of people or a diversity check-box approach. And that’s whether we’re creating the right spaces and resources for people to explore, connect and build capacity to improve climates of bias, harassment and inequity. My hope is that these reflections on how bias and exclusion show up in our lives will help us move forward with the vital work of building and nurturing systems and workplaces where we can all thrive, together.