I recently joined an inspiring conversation about empowering women of color at the 12th Annual International Women’s Day Forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The discussion, moderated by Desirée Cormier Smith, senior advisor at the U.S. State Department, along with Allison Lawrence, president of BLACK+DECKER at Stanley Black & Decker, and Kim Jenkins, global head of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at PayPal, allowed us each to share our personal perspectives on the intersectional experiences of women of color in the workplace. As companies across the nation work to cultivate more inclusive cultures and professional advancement opportunities for all women, it’s critical they take time to understand the unique challenges that women of color navigate in the workplace.
Reflecting on my own professional journey, I know how important it is to feel included at work. Black women often feel the need to justify why they belong in the workplace. As hard as we work, we can at times feel out of place and out of sync with our organization and colleagues. For many women, this feeling is intensified if they can’t express their true selves. When an environment is not inclusive, women of color tend to put on a facade and wear what I call a “cloak of conformity” to adapt to an existing culture. This can be exhausting and emotionally draining every day.
Psychological safety is key to cultivating belonging in the workplace. If people don’t feel comfortable at work, then you must closely examine the culture. Is it an environment where employees share their thoughts and perspectives? Do employees have fears or concerns about speaking up due to real or perceived consequences? If so, these barriers can have effects across an entire organization. They stifle creativity and innovation, prevent employees from feeling a sense of connection, trust and respect in the workplace, and undermine recruiting and retention. As leaders, it’s imperative that we work to foster inclusive environments where people can express themselves and share diverse perspectives. In today’s world, creating an inclusive culture is not a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have.
Early in my career, I learned that hard work and getting the right qualifications or experiences weren’t enough to continue advancing in my career. I recognized the importance of building a diverse and supportive network to help me grow as a professional. When people start to build their network, they often seek relationships with individuals with similar experiences and backgrounds. While those relationships are good, it’s critical that women of color build diverse networks. I made a point of doing this early on at Edward Jones, and it helped me create meaningful connections across the firm that enhanced my sense of belonging and opened doors to new professional opportunities.
Mentorship and sponsorships remain one of the best ways to support Black women and underrepresented individuals. The only way we can have a more representative working environment is by ensuring senior leaders sponsor and mentor colleagues who are underrepresented in the workplace. I’ve often been one of the only people of color in the workplace during my career and having the support and guidance of senior leaders who did not look like me or share similar experiences was critical. Mentoring is one of the most treasured traditions at Edward Jones, and I can attest to its vital role in my success.
Whether formal or informal, companies should encourage meaningful connections with diverse leaders to ensure that Black women and underrepresented individuals feel heard and can safely and confidently share their experiences and find solutions together.
At Edward Jones, our purpose is to partner for positive impact to improve the well-being of clients and colleagues and better our communities and society. And our work to ensure Edward Jones is a place of belonging, where everyone feels connected and can thrive, is a natural extension of our organization’s purpose.
The steps businesses take to advance meaningful change around diversity, equity, and inclusion will help transform our society and professional opportunities for not just people of color, but for everyone. But we must also recognize the unique needs of women of color and the opportunities to elevate, empower, and embrace them in the workplace. When women of color bring their empowered and authentic selves to the workplace, the facade is dismantled and they can excel in their work, build strong relationships, and achieve their full potential. Organizations need to create a sense of belonging and develop a community for everyone to succeed. The more inclusive an environment is — the more women of color, all women, all people — will thrive.
Vanessa Okwuraiwe spoke on a panel at our 12th Annual International Women’s Day Forum, “The Intersectional Experiences of Women of Color in the Workplace.” View the conversation here.