When focusing on how to overcome gender inequality and the biases that women face in the workplace, intersectionality can play an important but often overlooked role. The compound effect of different forms of oppression can create unique barriers that make women of color’s experiences particularly challenging. Minda Harts decided to examine these barriers in her upcoming book The Memo. Minda, who is a professor, CEO and podcast host, sat down to discuss why “leaning in” has not worked for women of color and why her new book is required reading for both women of color and organizational leaders.
Janice Gassam: What sparked your desire to write this book? There is already the book Lean In as well as Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, which focuses on gender inequality and female empowerment in the workplace, so what makes your book different from what’s already out there?
Minda Harts: It’s funny because, as a woman of color…I went through much of my career as the only one in the room or one of [a] few. After a while, you just start to settle into the microaggressions, you start to settle into the isolation, and you start to question everything you’re doing, and your expertise. I hit a point where I’m like, ‘you know what? This is not okay.’ Where is the space for us to acknowledge that these feelings we have are real and that the isolation is real? It’s not okay to be greeted with these microaggressions on the walls and in the halls. On the flipside, is there a community of people that are willing to shed a light on what it’s like for a woman of color [in] the workplace? As women as a whole, we do experience oppression…but…there’s levels of oppression in the workplace…I felt it was time for us to highlight the experiences of women of color in the workplace and let people know that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to women moving up the ladder.
There are a lot of career books that have been written…as women of color we are always the asterisk to a conversation. I’m saying we are no longer subscribing to that narrative. We are part of the conversation and it’s time that we put our experiences…in the sentence with all other women…being a black woman in the workplace, I experience people who questioned my expertise or my advice…or said certain things in terms of making assumptions about my background…I think that’s something that women of color are often greeted with at the door. All these assumptions, these narratives that were placed on us before we’ve had a chance to introduce ourselves. These labels like ‘angry black woman,’ ‘docile Asian,’ ‘feisty Latina,’ all of these things were put on us before we even got to say, ‘my name is.’ We have to come in the door and try to navigate all these workplace biases…and that’s something that a lot of other groups don’t have to do…even when it comes to our name, we have to modify [it] to make others feel comfortable…that should not be part of the job description, when we’ve done everything that has been asked of us. We have the education, we’ve done the work, we’ve invested in ourselves…I think that the importance is to let people know what it’s like for us to experience the workplace. I don’t think that story has been told. Even [during] part of the book writing process, some of my peers in the publishing world…were reading through my manuscript…some of the women were Caucasian women and they said, ‘I had no idea that women of color were experiencing this.’ I can’t say that I write for all women of color…all of our experiences are not the same, but there are some common threads that I think the book will address and also let…our allies understand what it’s like.
Gassam: Is there anything interesting you learned while writing this book? Did anything shock you?
Harts: I was shocked to find out that…there were other women that were going through some of the things that I experienced in the workplace. Oftentimes we suffer in silence and I didn’t realize how many of us were showing up to work with a smile…yet…still pushing through the pain, the disappointment…I realized that this was a unique opportunity for me to shed a light, to be the voice for other women of color inside the workplace that may not be able to have hard and difficult conversations with their manager…the other part of that is…we don’t highlight a lot of women of color that have made it to the c-suite. A lot of times we will only hear about the Sheryl Sandbergs, the Meg Whitmans of the world, but there are tons of black and brown women that have done so much good, like Tracy Davis at Estee Lauder, and Channing Dungey at Netflix…we don’t often highlight their work…we should be amplifying their work…this is my opportunity to speak their name. I have a chapter called ‘Say my name, say my name,’ and I talk about the women of color that are out there doing really great things so that we can amplify their work.
Gassam: What message(s) would you like readers to come away with after reading your book?
Harts: That’s a great question…I wrote this book as a love letter to women of color to say, ‘what you’re experiencing is real.’ Here are some tangible ways to navigate a very difficult workplace, but also at the same time, how managers play a role in barriers to entry for us to move forward…this is a roadmap for all in the workplace. At the end of the day, investing in our talent should be top of mind for every person in the workplace…I hope that people will come away seeing that this isn’t just a book for women of color but this is a book for anybody that cares about creating an equitable culture in the workforce…I hope that people understand that women of color have a lot of value add…women of color are the heart and soul of the company and we just have to have the opportunity to show what we’re made of.
Part of the book is about some of the systemic issues that are embedded in workplace culture and also acknowledging that not too long ago the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would allow people like ourselves to be in positions where we would have [the] agency to take up space…saying, ‘the table was not created for us to have a seat.’ Here’s what it looks like if we dismantle that and provide equitable opportunities…what [it] is like when we have to build our own strategic alliances in the workplace and being the only one or one of few…to negotiate your salary…there’s more career tips than being the only one and having to deal with some of the systemic barriers but also how do we work with others in the workplace? There are some tangible tools that will resonate with all women.
Gassam: What are some ways that companies can be more inclusive to women of color?
Harts: One of the things that I talk about is stepping away from the word ‘ally’ and saying, ‘success partners.’ That will take people who have authority…or agency or power…they look around and see who is missing. Find somebody that they can partner within the workplace that does not look like them, that does not identify with them, and put together an accelerated career track to help to put that person at the table…it’s not just allyship but…how are you helping someone else be successful? I think doing that is looking around, seeing who’s missing and actively going to pursue them and give them an opportunity to accelerate their career.
Gassam: Do you have any advice for women of color who are navigating their careers?
Harts: I wish I had The Memo. I wish I knew that there was a community of other black and brown women that were rooting for me, that we’re fighting for me to have a seat at the table. I hope that if other women have aspirations to have a seat at the table…that they won’t lean out. Know that if you want a seat at the table, then it’s yours but you have to also understand that sometimes that current table that we’re fighting for does not deserve us to be at…we have to assess the situation and make sure that we end up at the table that’s best for us. Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve worked somewhere for quite some time you feel like, ‘I should be here’…you also want to take care of yourself…for so long we’ve been fighting to sit at tables that don’t want us there and sometimes we have look and say ‘hey, maybe there’s another table that’s best suited for me. Knowing when that expiration date has taken place and moving forward.
I often hear women of color saying, ‘I don’t have an Ivy League degree’…I would be the first to say I came from a low-income family and I built my own…I went to a junior college and then went to a four-year university. It was really important for me to create my own narrative and not be ambivalent about my career, so don’t let labels, demographics, race, gender, stop you from securing your seat.