Shirley Chisholm shattered the glass ceiling in 1968 when she became the first black woman elected to Congress.
Chisholm famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Decades later, it turns out that’s still easier said than done.
Author Minda Harts was searching for tips in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” — a book that quickly became a holy grail of sorts for women in the workplace. She says Sandberg’s book didn’t address many issues she faces as a working woman of color.
“I didn’t see myself as a black woman or a woman of color in the book,” Harts says. “I felt that it’s hard to ‘lean in’ when you’re not even in the room.”
Women, especially women of color, are underrepresented in management and board positions in the workplace. Harts wanted to create a roadmap containing actionable tips specifically for black and brown women looking to break the “black ceiling.”
Her guide, called “The Memo: What Women of Color Need To Know To Secure A Seat At The Table,” is a straight-forward look at what many women of color experience while developing their careers — bias, microaggressions and the consequences of white privilege.
“What I found and what statistics have shown is black women, we ascend to a certain point and then it tends to be middle management and that’s as far as many of us get,” she says.
To advance in the workplace, Harts says to first build your work squad, internally and externally.
“We talk a lot about networking,” she says. “I think it’s so important and crucial for women of color if we want the seat at the table.”
The purpose of networking is twofold, Harts explains: to expand your network, and also to gain trustworthy colleagues who can speak on your behalf when you’re not there.
The end goal is to “thrive and not just survive,” and networking gives the opportunity to break out of isolation, she says.
But if the company isn’t proactively working toward diversifying their leadership, or ignoring your professional development and well being, Harts says it’s okay to move on.
“Don’t be afraid to find a table that’s right for you,” she says.
On Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In”
“One of the issues that I felt was missing was race. I think it’s hard to talk about a seat at the table when you don’t acknowledge that not all ceilings are created equal. … The wage gap for black and brown women is much different than Caucasian women and I think that Sheryl wrote from a place of privilege. Now I don’t take it away that that is her story. That is what she drew from. But I think that there are many nuances to the table and I felt like it was time for black and brown women to finally be able to shake their head up and down and read some of the common themes that we experience when we try to lean in.”
On stereotypes and microaggressions in the workplace
“One of the women that I spoke with while writing the book, she told me that her white male boss could never remember her name and made her wear a name tag and she was there for seven years. And when she went to speak about it, [management] told her, ‘Don’t be the angry black woman.’ It’s like, well, how are you supposed to feel working somewhere for seven years and you’re always getting my name wrong? It’s things like that we don’t even have the agency to speak out on at times.
“Microaggressions and bias are real. And when I was in corporate America, my manager commented on my nail color, which at the time it was summertime and so I had on the color burnt orange, and he said, ‘You people love your bright colors.’ And he joked with another white male colleague for about 15 minutes about how black people like bright colors.”
“The future of work will require the advancement of women of color.”
On how white allies within the workplace can help
“One of the things that I talk about [in the book] was an experience that I was going through of being one of the only black women in the workplace. And when the situation was happening, the situation caused for me to be an advocate for myself, but then my white co-workers just watched it all go down in secrecy. They would come and see if I was OK and say, ‘Sorry you’re going through this.’ But when they had the opportunities to speak up about it in public, they did not stand up for me. I think that if you’re a colleague of any color or gender, I think it’s important to be there in public and also educate yourself and use books like ‘The Memo’ to see what you’ve been doing [and] how you been contributing to some of the discomfort that women of color have been experiencing in the workplace. I think it requires that education piece to truly be an ally.”
On the benefit of having more women of color at the table
“As you mentioned, there’s so many statistics as to the benefit to the bottom line. And so I think the next phase of the conversation is the activation, you know, are we going to accelerate those who have been left out of the corner office? And I think it’s really important for us to be a part of the conversation and I think we’re just at a very much a rhetoric phase of leadership but the future of work will require the advancement of women of color.”
On cautious leaders vs. courageous leaders
“I think cautious leaders will retain and advance women of color because it’s important to be reflective of your mission and your values. So if you say that diversity matters but no one in leadership looks like some of your workforce, then that signals to those women of color that you’re not being intentional. And I think that people often say it’s a pipeline issue, but it’s really a retaining and advancing issue. I think for women of color oftentimes we have to also adhere to our expiration dates. Maybe we’re at a company where we’re never going to get to that table because of cautious leaders. So don’t be afraid to find a table that’s right for you.”
Book Excerpt: “The Memo”
By Minda Harts
In 2012, I was living in Los Angeles and trying to cope with the death of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin. I worked in a predominantly white environment, and no one in the office was talking about his death. Up until that point, I had never seen myself as an activist. Not in a Rosa Parks type of way. I guess you could say I had been going through life with my head down; black women are often told to do just that, especially in the workplace. Even though I saw bias all around me, I knew I could never rock the boat and speak out on it. I mean, who would care or do anything about it? But something about Trayvon’s death touched me at my core. Maybe it’s because I have two younger brothers and plenty of black male cousins, and I know how easily one of them could be in this same situation. I am sure his death caused many of us to question how we could help.
Fast forward a year and some change, and I was working on the East Coast. The verdict was out: George Zimmerman was not guilty. I cried that night as if I could feel the pain of Trayvon’s parents. And mixed in with those emotions, I was going through my own personal hell of working in an environment that was less than equitable. It was on that night that I realized I had to do something. My advocacy wouldn’t be on the front lines with the Black Lives Matter movement; my advocacy would be inside the workplace advocating for women that looked like me. I had to fight systemic racism in a way that was authentic to me and that would allow me to use my expertise.
Mellody Hobson would later use the term “corporate Kaepernick,” and I felt like I was something like a Kaepernick; addressing the inequalities that we often are scared to address. I had no idea what I would do or what it would look like, but I knew I had to do something!
Around the same time, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg came out. I was heavily into professional development and consuming every business and self-help book I could get my hands on. After reading countless books, I realized that race or intersectionality was rarely—if ever—a topic of conversation. And the books I was reading and the content I was consuming were being produced by white women. It started to become very problematic for me to never read about the experiences of women of color at work. We were completely left out of most narratives. So I decided my form of advocacy would be to create a platform that served our needs and highlighted the challenges women of color face in the workplace. Again, I had no idea how that would look and wouldn’t until 2015, when I was forced to write a business plan for my unnamed company.
All I could think about was Shirley Chisholm’s quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” And on a train ride from Washington, D.C., to New York City while listening to a Drake song called “Trophies,” through my earbuds came the lyrics “Did y’all boys not get the memo?”
And that line hit me like a ton of bricks—the workplace has not gotten The Memo: women of color deserve a seat at the table, and we are coming for those seats!
It took time to build, but in the fall of 2015, I launched The Memo newsletter, and from there my business grew to include career boot camps, a speaker’s series, and an annual awards event. My activism was kicked off by Trayvon Martin—his death showed me that there was advocacy inside me waiting to come out. I went from someone who was fairly shy at times to someone speaking about the inequalities women of color face and challenging the “lean-in” doctrine. And in those days, Sheryl Sandberg could do no wrong, so most white women just looked at me sideways, but my message was resonating with women of color all over the country.
I have to admit that I was scared to launch The Memo. Imposter syndrome reared its ugly head. I wasn’t sure if I was the one to continue carrying this mantle of those who came before me like Ida B. Wells, Essie Robeson, Addie Hunton, and Maggie Walker. But as my friend Lolly Lynette said one day during a text conversation, “They would be proud.” The funny thing about advocacy is that people will try to tell you what you’re doing won’t work, and they won’t see your vision. I had countless people tell me that I shouldn’t start my company because there already were career platforms for women. I was most discouraged by white men, who pointed me to companies like Levo League, The Muse, and countless other platforms run by white women, at least in part because they were investors in those companies. They couldn’t see that our missions were very different at the core! It made it hard to raise money because no one wanted to invest in women of color in this way. There were days I would be on the phone with my cofounder, Lauren, and we had twenty dollars in our business bank account. And even though we continued to bootstrap our company, we knew we had to get the word out to more women of color so they wouldn’t lean out of the workforce due to isolation, lack of opportunity, and bias.
My curiosity was larger than my fear, and I didn’t want to see another woman of color crawl through her disappointments in the workplace and have no one ever acknowledge them! I was tired of the workplace being separate and far from equal. I was exhausted from the labels and the BS. And, I know we need to make more people aware of how difficult securing our seat at the table can be—I had to write my story and tell the stories of other women of color. And even though most people don’t want to admit it, we can’t talk about advancing women of color, or the future of work for that matter, and not address race and the history of this country.
When I looked back, I realized I have been writing poetry since I was in grade school, yet I never saw myself as a writer. Some people have daydreamed their entire lives about writing a book. But I had never considered it; I wasn’t dreaming big enough! Then I realized I wanted to write a love letter to women of color. I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to tell our stories and shine a light on the fact that not all women experience the workplace in the same way. And I wanted to write a book that would give white people insight into how they have played a role in our barriers to entry.
The current system is broken, and it will take all hands on deck to reassemble a table that did not originally have a seat for us. But the good news is that this is our story, told by us! Time to secure our seat at the table and give everybody The Memo.
Adapted from The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure A Seat at the Table by Minda Harts. Copyright © 2019. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
This segment aired on August 23, 2019.