Everyone Wants WOC On Their Teams, But Are They Actually Willing To Give Them A Voice?

It was the year that shall not be named. 
The year that ‘quarantine’ stopped being a word relegated to the confines of airport security. That banana bread and sourdough starter became firm fixtures in our kitchens… baking away as we performed our fifth TikTok dance in a row.
It was also the year we saw more than 950 major brands and corporations — spurred by the 14.6 million black squares that flooded Instagram following George Floyd’s death — share posts of solidarity for Black Lives Matter. Notably, it was at this very juncture that many said brands and corporations rapidly found themselves in (arguably long overdue) hot water for publicly decrying racism while internally maintaining a status quo that has, for decades, seen Black, First Nations and people of colour — especially women — left out of senior leadership roles.
What followed, particularly in the United States, were rallying calls for brands to publicly declare their quota of Black employees and a commitment to #PullUpOrShutUp (in the beauty industry) or sign the #15PercentPledge (in the fashion industry); movements started by Black female entrepreneurs Sharon Chuter and Aurora James, respectively. An Australian version of the movement commenced not long after, calling on brands, especially those in the beauty space, to represent BIPOC both on the grid and behind the scenes. However, the local Instagram page ceased posting just four months after it began. 
Fast forward to 2021: quarantine is still an outside-of-airport reality — and so, too, is the supposed push to diversify the workplace and amplify the voices of women of colour. Instagram pledges and ‘look at the women of colour we’ve hired!’ press releases aside, the data shows that companies really do appear to want women of colour on their team — now more than ever before — but how much that really extends beyond the initial hiring process and into changing company cultures remains in question. Per Forbes, a survey of individuals who work in talent acquisition in the US found that nearly every company (98%) considers “diversity recruiting” a “top priority in 2021”, but only 55% said the organisations they represented have set specific, tangible diversity hiring goals.
It’s an incongruence that Australia appears to be mirroring, according to data from Women of Colour Australia (WoCA). The not-for-profit organisation conducted a national survey of over 500 Australian women of colour (WOC) across varying ages, industries, incomes and backgrounds to examine the intersectional issues they faced in the workplace. The results, which came out in June 2021, were sobering, with 60% of respondents expressing they had experienced discrimination in the workplace. Most respondents (57%) also felt they had faced challenges in the workplace related to their identity as a woman of colour — despite 59% of all participants reporting their workplace has a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) policy in place.
Brenda Gaddi, the founder and managing director of WoCA and a first-generation migrant from the Philippines, said that while she knew tokenism, sexism and racism had long been present in Australian workplaces, seeing the 200 pages of raw participant responses for the first time left her “heartbroken”.
“At times, I had to walk away from it because it was just breaking my heart. Sometimes it was triggering as well. We [WoCA] knew it was happening, we felt it in our bones, but we didn’t have the hard facts before [the survey],” she told Refinery29 Australia.
Moreover, that 60% figure is likely to be much higher, Gaddi emphasised, “because some of them are probably not even comfortable enough to share their experiences.”
It would also be safe to presume that number is also likely to be higher due to the many insidious ways in which racism and sexism can present themselves. After all, it’s well-known that unconscious biases have long impacted women’s progress within the working world. From those that are programmed into job-recruitment algorithms — some of which have been found to rank women’s CVs lower than men’s regardless of industry — to ‘affinity bias’, where those in power typically continue to hire those who look like them (coughwhitemencough), keeping women, particularly those of colour, from progressing to more senior roles.

“My bosses really wanted me to put my identity [as a woman of colour] front and centre to secure a deal”

For Alice*, an advertising director with decades of experience, it was these kinds of biases-turned-barriers early in her career at a white male-dominated agency that prompted her to move from Australia to America. There, she wound up with a bilingual, female boss from a Hispanic background, who not only became an advocate for to take over her role when she left, but taught her to see her “race as a point of difference” in a way “that can be very positive”.
“I don’t think I felt an overt sense of prejudice or discrimination until the point at which I wanted to be promoted,” she said of her early years working in Australia.
“What I noticed around me was that younger, white women — less experienced white women — were being promoted over me. And that really, really stung, because I couldn’t quantify what our difference in experience was, when actually, I was older and had more years in the workforce.
“I put it down to — whether this perception is right or wrong — the type of racism that stems from unconscious bias. I don’t think anyone would have ever said ‘Oh, well, she looks Asian, so we won’t promote her’.”
Despite occurring over a decade ago, Alice’s experience as a young woman of colour trying to progress in her career isn’t exactly an anomaly, even in 2021. Perhaps, the key difference today — particularly in industries that rely on optics for cultural capital, such as fashion and media — is that young women of colour at the entry and mid-levels offer companies a chance to outwardly ‘perform diversity’ without really changing the status quo. At its best, this perpetuates a facade of inclusivity. At its worst? It can see those women of colour have their identities exploited to benefit the business or be siloed into becoming their team’s ‘race spokesperson’, often accompanied by a fear of how speaking out against it might impact their career trajectory.

“Good optics makes for bad D&I strategy”

It’s something Karishma*, a marketing manager in her late twenties, experienced firsthand when her white employers suddenly made a point of emphasising her race to land a client from a minority background.
“My bosses really wanted me to put my identity [as a woman of colour] front and centre to secure a deal,” she recounted.
“This wasn’t necessarily the type of thing where photos [of the staff] would be included, but they did this time around. And that just felt a little exploitative. But they could easily say ‘Oh no, we just wanted to show them the diverse makeup of the team, including all the white ladies.’
“It really annoyed me. When you only get used for your face to make money, to make profit… that’s what pisses me off.”
Jane*, a software engineer in her late twenties who identifies as Black, faced similar feelings of tokenism when her employers called on her to help revise their leadership skills document to make it more inclusive following 2020’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement — but they were quicker to argue than they were to listen.
“One of my main pieces of feedback was simply that we need to have a sentence on this document that speaks to equal treatment of employees. You cannot release a statement of principles for prospective team leaders without saying it is our expectation that you do not discriminate,” she told Refinery29 Australia
“I was really shocked to hear pushback for my suggestion. I found it really disappointing that I had to argue a point that essentially said, ‘Treat me and others like me fairly’. It was just a really good example of a situation where they wanted a woman of colour to opine on something, but actually couldn't even bear to digest what had been suggested, which I feel was a very uncontroversial idea.”
It’s also a sentiment echoed by Shikha*, a 29-year-old paralegal from Sydney, who said she’d experienced discomfort-driven silencing and microaggressions at work so often, that she doesn’t “really clock them anymore”. 
“There can be a very performative nature to the diversity quota,” she said.
“When it comes to staff input on events or incidents, if you don’t go with the majority and you do try to voice your opinion as a WOC, it’s really obvious that it makes everyone uncomfortable and it’s not an opinion that’s going to be used productively.”

"Women and URM drawn to a company by its diversity optics are blindsided by how different the reality inside the company is from the polished exterior they’ve been marketed."

The business case for diversity is nothing new, with various insights gathered by leading consultancy firms long showing that when women and underrepresented minorities (URM) have meaningful seats at the table, profitability improves. But should increasing representation really be driven by revenue? Diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Lily Zheng perhaps put it best in a 2019 essay for Medium, titled “The business case for diversity is a sinking ship” — one full year before representation pledges on social media became de rigueur — arguing that the rationale for inclusion must go beyond bottom lines and that “Good optics makes for bad D&I strategy”.
“The vast majority of companies pay lip service to D&I through high profile hires and marketing, while investing little in the internal leadership buy-in, culture change, policy infrastructure, or content development needed to support a diverse workforce. Such a ‘strategy’ has disastrous implications,” they wrote.
“Women and URM drawn to a company by its diversity optics are blindsided by how different the reality inside the company is from the polished exterior they’ve been marketed. It’s a classic bait-and-switch. No policies or practices for pregnant employees. Racist language in the office and managers who ignore it. Leadership — from middle management to the C-Suite — that is overwhelming[ly] white, cisgender, heterosexual, men. In these sorts of environments, women and URMs are unlikely to be productive, innovative, or creative. If anything, they quickly become resentful, distrustful, and burned out. They quit as soon as they can, and the cycle of diverse hires entering and leaving organisations — the revolving door, as it’s known — continues.”

It’s going to be uncomfortable, because you have to face up to the idea of ‘Oh my god, I am racist’ or ‘I have these unconscious biases’... You have to do the work, the unlearning and relearning and then spread it within your team and organisation’s DNA.

Hiring more women of colour is undoubtedly a step forward, but as the slightly twee saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see”. When D&I efforts are only carried out at the lower rungs on the ladder and the higher you move up, the fewer seats there are at the table, the less inclusive and psychologically safe the space tends to become for women of colour — and the more likely they are to leave an organisation that unconsciously tells them that they are more ‘novelty’, and less ‘authority’. Not only can this result in a stunted career trajectory, making it that much slower to climb the proverbial ladder, but it can foster a sense of self-doubt that becomes yet another challenge to surpass — perpetuating a cycle in which WOC might struggle to gain enough on-paper experience to be placed at the very levels they are needed the most to enable top-down shifts in company culture. (The myth of meritocracy has entered the chat).
In the survey conducted by WoCA, the highest number of respondents earned between $100k and $149,000 per annum, however the responses showed that higher income brackets still came with increased challenges for women of colour, including having to prove themselves more than their white counterparts to reach the same level, while still sometimes viewed as being less competent or, perhaps worse, being ignored. Moreover, 50% of all respondents felt there were cultural barriers preventing them from achieving their professional goals, with all-white, often-male leadership and the need to fit in with ‘typical’ white Australian culture cited as among the biggest, while mentoring, structural change, diversity at the top and quotas were shared as some of the key ways to combat them.
“You might ‘put’ a woman of colour in ‘that position’, but she is not really given the authority,” Gaddi said of companies’ ‘tick-a-box’ approach to hiring without ensuring psychological safety.
“[Because of tokenism], she’ll be second-guessing, and at the end of it, she'll just walk away, because you know, as soon as she feels this weight of expectation — but without the authority that should be attached to it — in the end… she will just get tired.” 
When it comes to ensuring women of colour’s voices are not just heard, but listened to in their workplace, Gaddi told Refinery29 Australia that it would have to start with upper management willingly placing themselves under the microscope.
“It starts with really having that intersectional lens on inclusion. We need to make sure those in charge of shaping these policies are actually those who have lived experiences. If you’re in the leadership team or the C-suite with all those decision-makers, ask yourself ‘Who’s missing in my team? Whose voices are being missed or excluded?’,” she said.
“It’s going to be uncomfortable, because you have to face up to the idea of ‘Oh my god, I am racist’ or ‘I have these unconscious biases’. That critical acknowledgement has to come from you. You have to do the work, the unlearning and relearning and then spread it within your team and organisation’s DNA.”
As one of the few women of colour to reach the top of her field, Alice emphasised the importance of paying it forward, saying she “was really conscious of trying to help younger women of colour” advance in their careers by mentoring them to navigate a system “traditionally managed by white, straight men”. At the same time, Alice noted that young women of colour should also take care not to unconsciously minimise their own voices at work, even when top-down shifts do need to occur.
“It’s almost like we look for others to give us permission, like ‘Oh, if I get that cool boss in that different team and try to get a transfer, he’s going to advocate for me’ or ‘She’s Asian, so I reckon she would understand me more’. No, you don’t need the permission. If you’ve been given the job, go. Don’t hold back. Don’t be your own worst critic and enemy,” she said.
“Sometimes, I think we’re looking for someone to ‘give us a seat’ or ask for our opinion. No, you don’t need the permission. Men don’t ask for permission. They just speak.”
One small step for women of colour, several do-it-or-risk-becoming-irrelevant ones for companies everywhere? 
Sounds like a plan.
*Names have been changed for privacy. Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

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