06 Jan 2021

HBS Leadership Initiative Launches Dialogue for Women of Color: Addressing Challenges and Accelerating Development


Top: Linda Hill, Tony Mayo
Bottom: Dobbin Bookman, Laura Morgan Roberts

by Shona Simkin

A special Zoom workshop last semester brought together 160 women of color from the HBS community of alumni, students, staff, and faculty, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion executives from global organizations, to answer two questions: What can HBS do to accelerate the development of women leaders of color? What are the key challenges and opportunities faced by women leaders of color, and how do we address them?

Over the course of three hours, participants in “Leadership Accelerator: A Dialogue Among Women of Color” heard recent data about the experiences of women of color in the workplace presented by HBS Professor Tony Mayo and University of Virginia Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, and explored the power of joining forces with other women of color with Bonita Stewart (MBA 1983) and Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978), co-authors of A Blessing. The session included breakout activities to enable participants to share their own experiences, discuss barriers to access and opportunity, and offer solutions.

Hosted by the HBS Leadership Initiative (LI) and moderated by the LI’s faculty chair, Professor Linda Hill and Executive Education’s Dobbin Bookman, the workshop was both the culmination of a series of activities from the LI and Gender Initiative (GI) focused on the Black experience, and a kickoff of a partnership between the LI and Executive Education to address racial equity at HBS and beyond, in alignment with the HBS Plan for Racial Equity.

Over the past several years, the Gender and Leadership Initiatives held a series of convenings that built on the original research and initiatives marking the 2018 50th anniversary of the founding of the African American Student Union (AASU). Much of the research and work presented in the 2018 Gender Initiative symposium on race, work, and leadership was collected in the recently-published Race Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, co-edited by Roberts, Mayo, and Morehouse College President David Thomas. With several planned book-release events delayed and ultimately canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hill decided to combine a celebration of the research with the new release of A Blessing and to begin conversations on the lived experiences of women of color.

“It's about building an inclusive society, which we define as valuing differences and providing access to equal opportunity to people,” said Hill. “The Leadership Initiative believes deeply in diversity broadly conceived, and that race and ethnicity are harder topics to address in diversity efforts, particularly race. We started there, in our own work, to show that we have to embrace it all, and that's often the one that's hardest for organizations to deal with.”

To home in on the most pressing issues, the organizers sent polls to all registered participants before and after the workshop, seeking information on career goals and expectations, areas of focus and interest, and opinions on what is currently present and missing from the HBS experience. The data, says Bookman, helped to focus the topics for breakout room conversations and will lead to future targeted conversations, workshops, and program offerings.

Among the frequently-mentioned topics were:

    - creating high level networks,
    - finding and being mentors and sponsors,
    - navigating stereotypes,
    - visibility in the workplace,
    - the double burden of unconscious racial and gender bias,
    - sponsorship versus advocacy,
    - securing power,
    - and getting the stretch assignments that lead to promotions.

Many of those issues were included in the data-driven presentations by Mayo and Roberts, which focused on a refreshed look at the key enablers and obstacles to success for diverse MBA graduates. Mayo expanded beyond the book’s focus on Black and white MBA graduates, returning to the original set of data from the GI’s ongoing Life and Leadership After HBS study. In this second cut at the data, Mayo included the experiences of Asian, South Asian, and Hispanic men and women, examining the career issues of satisfaction, enablers, obstacles, and accommodations.

After breakout room sessions in which participants discussed which aspects of the data resonated with their own lived experience, Roberts presented key takeaways around three central concepts and how to move forward with these findings: access (getting people of color into the pipeline), authenticity (creating a space of belonging), and advancement (creating an equitable path to success).

“Regardless of where you are in the business hierarchy, you can take action,” said Mayo. “Senior leaders can mentor, sponsor, and encourage conversations about race. Those who can influence organizational structure can create the scaffolding that supports individuals of color. Managers can provide feedback, coaching, and support. Even individuals who feel powerless can start conversations about race, engage in inquiry about company policies, and even reverse-mentor on issues of race and racial justice.”

“This was a unique gathering for us to really shine a light on women of color and their specific challenges, opportunities, and community,” added Mayo. “The sisterhood and support that is required to attain success—which everybody needs—has been there, we just haven’t talked about it.”

Colleen Ammerman, director of the GI, concurred. “Focusing on the experiences of and particular challenges faced by women of color is essential to any conversation about gender in the workplace. If we don’t pay attention to the different and additional barriers they face, all our efforts to advance women’s careers will benefit white women alone, and I don’t think anyone who truly cares about gender equity would consider that a victory.”

Stewart and Adams, like Hill and many others in the conversation, have been “firsts” in their fields. Hill was the first Black female academic to receive tenure at HBS; Stewart the first Black female vice president at Google; and Adams was the first Black woman whom CBS News assigned full-time to cover the White House. Each spoke about the dual burden and fortune of being unicorns in their professional settings. Adams and Stewart explained that their book title references the term for a group of unicorns, which is a “blessing.”

Nearly half of Black women report being always the only person of their race in a professional setting, Stewart and Adams found in their proprietary survey. Inclusive leadership and allies, they say, are crucial to the success of women of color across generations.

“We had a vision to change the narrative for women of color, to create a substantive and scalable rallying cry around the notion of teaming up,” said Stewart. “Our central thesis is an optimistic yet realistic narrative for ourselves as well as leaders who are interested in activating the competitive advance that will come from winning the race for talent,” Adams said. “We also address future leaders, younger people, who want to be prepared to embrace the changing dynamics of management.”

For Mia Mends (MBA 2003), chief administrative officer at Sodexho North America, the dialogue was both moving and sobering. “It was validating to be surrounded by a community of women who have shared experiences shaped by our racial identity. I also recognized that for most of us, every career achievement has been hard fought and also marked by trials and tribulations,” said Mends. “I am grateful not to feel alone on this journey, but it is infinitely frustrating to know that the constraints we see and feel are still rooted in structural bias and racism. Even so, I sensed that collectively we understand that our education has given us privilege, so while we create our own paths forward, we know instinctively that it is our responsibility to pave the way for others. That was inspiring.”

Layla Ramirez (MBA 2017) noted that as a practitioner herself, the dialogue reminded her of the critical need for more similar gatherings, communities, engagements, and spaces. “We all need to stay encouraged and do the work,” she said. “Maybe we need to look at this from a design thinking perspective--trying things with conviction and learning from our mistakes. One of the most challenging things to address is the fear of saying the wrong thing or making a mistake. Not doing anything at this point is much worse than messing anything up. The orientation needs to be on incremental improvement without being fixated on the immediate return.”

With an eye towards a portfolio of projects leveraging the collaboration of the LI and Executive Education for women of color, Bookman notes that these are among several efforts underway to support the Plan for Racial Equity at HBS, including an Executive Education fellowship program for underrepresented minorities and corporate partnerships to train, elevate, and support their emerging leaders of color. “The uniqueness of this moment is that the Leadership Initiative, and Tony and Laura’s work, has been focused on issues of equity and inclusion for quite a while, and this is a moment now,” said Bookman. “HBS is accelerating this work, so the institutional need is also now. It’s exciting to be a part of all of these intersections and to begin to have meaningful impact towards advancing careers of people of color, particularly the Black community.”

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