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How Women of Color Are Changing the Face of Leadership

How Women of Color Are Changing the Face of Leadership

Deepa Purushothaman, author of “The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power … [+] in Corporate America”

Leslie Bohm

One in five Americans is a woman of color, and women of color will be the majority of all women in America by 2060, according to Catalyst. These changing demographics alone won’t automatically alter the representation of leadership, where currently only 4% of C-suite leaders are women of color. “We need to expand our impressions about what a leader is supposed to look like to allow for more types of leadership to be valued and promoted,” says Deepa Purushothaman, author of The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America. “If you want to support women of color, you have to let us lead in our own ways.”

I spoke to Purushothaman—who was also the first Indian woman to become a partner at Deloitte, and who is now co-founder of nFormation, a professional space for women of color—about her new book, and how to redefine leadership to be more inclusive. She notes that she uses “women of color” in solidarity, but it is not a monolith, as the term encompasses different cultures, identities and experiences. Here is her advice after interviewing more than 500 women of color about their leadership experiences in the workplace.

On imposter syndrome…

Imposter syndrome, or doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud, may disproportionately impact women, and particularly women of color. Bias, stereotypes and a lack of representation in leadership positions strongly influence whether or not people feel like they belong in the workplace.

“I wrote a mantra, ‘You don’t have to see it to be it,’ which is the opposite of what we tell most people,” says Purushothaman. “I had to do that because, if I didn’t, imposter syndrome would take over. The biggest challenge with not seeing yourself represented is that you start to question yourself and who and what you are. You start to edit yourself bit by bit, trying to fit in because others [in the room] look differently from you. You can end up muting your voice.”

Purushothaman says that the systems show up differently for different people, and that means corporate America is not a meritocracy. An article in the Harvard Business Review pinpoints that the antidote to combating imposter syndrome shouldn’t focus on fixing women, but rather on building inclusive cultures where there is more space for a variety of leadership styles to be valued. “What’s happening with imposter syndrome is we end up believing it’s us, without realizing the system is responsible for some of our questioning,” says Purushothaman.

On being an “only”…

Forty-five percent of women of color are often the only or one of the only people of their race or ethnicity in the room, and this increased visibility can lead to them being held to higher standards and pressure to represent their gender and race, according to the Women in the Workplace 2018 report from LeanIn.org.

One of the women Purushothaman interviewed for the book was with a Black woman from the Midwest who was the only Black woman in her entire company. “She wanted her colleagues—many of whom had never interacted with another Black person—to have a good impression. That has nothing to do with her job, and she carried the weight of feeling a need to be “perfect” and to be an ambassador for her race,” says Purushothaman. “Part of what I want women of color to know is the difference between what’s ours to take on, and what isn’t. Women and women of color take on so much, when it’s the system’s fault. There’s so much power in knowing you’re not alone, in knowing what’s yours, and giving back the rest.”

On knowing your inherent worth…

As women move up into leadership positions, they are more likely to face microaggressions that challenge their competence, according to the Women in the Workplace 2021 Report. Women of color are far more likely than white women to experience disrespectful and othering behavior, such as surprise at their language skills or other abilities. The result is that women who experience microaggressions are twice as likely to be burned out, and they’re less likely to stay at the company.

Purushothaman says she knew she wanted to leave her job for about three years before she left, but found it hard to leave because she worried about the impact it might have on other women of color. Also, her work was so deeply tied to her identity. Then she was diagnosed with a chronic illness.

“[My doctor] said to me, ‘We can run more tests, or I can tell you what you already know: Your job is killing you. It’s not conducive to letting you heal,’” recalls Purushothaman. “Then she asked me three life-changing questions: ‘Do you have to have a big job like this? What else could you do other than this job? Do you see yourself as worthy without what you do?’

During the Great Resignation, we’re seeing many Americans reassess their priorities and shift from a “live to work” to a “work to live” mindset, placing a greater emphasis on personal wellbeing. “Now, success for me is no longer divorced from health or mental wellness,” says Purushothaman. “We live in a culture and a society where those two things don’t go hand in hand. We need to re-link them.”

On changing workplace culture…

Traditional workplace culture was created decades ago when the majority of business executives were white and male, and needs to adapt to better serve the workplace’s changing demographics today. To do this, Purushothaman encourages women of color to find the power of ‘me,’ and the power of ‘we.’

“You need to figure out for yourself what makes you feel whole, healthy, happy, powerful,” she says. “The ‘we’ work is joining a community. Once you find the ‘we,’ you realize you’re not alone, and that we’re struggling with the same things. There’s power in that. That’s how you push on structures.”

Cultural transformation isn’t easy and requires ongoing effort and trial and error to create systems that work better for everyone. “Trailblazing comes at a cost, and we don’t talk about that,” says Purushothaman. “Most of the women [I interviewed] were sick. There is burnout, as well as trauma, happening for women of color in a real way. It’s unpacking all of those things and understanding that we have to do the work, because we’re in a moment now more than ever where we’ve realized work isn’t working for anybody.”

On redefining leadership…

Leadership traits that have been the most highly valued, such as assertiveness and competitiveness, have often been linked with a traditionally masculine leadership style, largely due to a lack of representation of women of color in top leadership positions and the majority of leaders being men. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, traits such as empathy and flexibility, which have traditionally been associated with feminine leadership style, are essential to respond to the new world of work.

“As women of color, we have very different lived experiences. Yet there’s never been space to bring all our stories, strengths, or lived experiences into leadership,” says Purushothaman. “They would be really valuable right now, where leaders need to know how to work in complexity and develop and manage diversity. We’ve had to navigate not being seen and heard within structures. Why are those things not valued in the same sorts of ways?”

On power…

Each and every one of us has the power to push for positive change. Organizations and systems are made up of people. Therefore, activating individuals collectively to build more equitable workplaces can have a big impact. “One of the biggest messages in my book is that anything that has come before can be undone, but we have to decide to undo it,” says Purushothaman. “We are the ones that give power to everything. If we decided these systems didn’t work, we could recreate them. Right now we have to get the white men to understand we’re not trying to take anything away from them. We’re trying to have a conversation about how power was defined in the first place.”

Purushothaman shares that change won’t happen without men, and it starts with giving themselves permission to make mistakes rather than not acting at all because they are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. “I don’t think [the system] can be changed without them. And, by the way, work and the system aren’t working for them either,” says Purushothaman. “I’ve spoken to a lot of white men who want more flexibility and time with their families. It’s really a question of: Who are the current structures serving, and do they serve anybody? They were created generations ago. Many men have bought into a broken system, and so we need to deprogram them too. I’m not saying that men are the broken ones, it’s a system that’s broken. Once we understand that, we can all change it together. We have to find a different way to have the conversation.”

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