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Podcast: The experience of women of colour in today’s corporate world

Simi Rayat Leadership Coach at Wellbeing Face, and Rhonda Williams CEO of Dream Life Academy.


Today in support of International Women’s Day 2021, we are joined by Leadership Coach, Simi Rayat and Rhonda Williams, CEO of Dream Life Academy, who are here to share the key challenges women of colour face in their careers and how to best overcome these obstacles.
 

1. To begin with, please could you introduce yourself to our listeners? Simi, we’ll begin with you if that’s okay.

(00:57) Yes, so my name is Simi Rayat. My background is as a Chartered Business Psychologist, I work as an Executive Leadership Coach and I coach leaders to help elevate their leadership brilliance. So, I work with a lot of female leaders globally to help them progress, to feel empowered and strategically navigate their way through to senior positions; in particular, women of colour. And I’m the Founder and Owner of a thriving business and psychology practice called Wellbeing Face; based in London, but also serving clients globally.

2. And Rhonda, how about yourself?

(01:33) So, my name is Rhonda Y. Williams and I am, as you mentioned, the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Dream Life Leadership Academy. In that work, I am an emotional intelligence strategist, and I say strategist because I work on helping leaders apply emotional intelligence principles to the work that they do so that they can get more consistent outcomes. I also focus on helping women of colour advance to executive level roles and positions and helping them in all aspects of that, whether that is the internal work that’s necessary and preparing them for that external work. And so, I am just super excited to be here with you all today.

3. And Rhonda, what has been your experience of being a woman of colour in the corporate world so far in your career?

(02:27) That’s a great question, Jon. For me, I am a registered nurse by background, and so I had the opportunity of growing up in healthcare and getting to see both sides of it as I began to advance in my career. I had the opportunity to go for and become a Chief Nursing Officer in healthcare, running the largest department in the hospital, overseeing all the nursing aspects, and then also to become eventually a hospital CEO. So, I’ve had a varied career and held the highest positions at the hospital level and then I’ve also held several VP-level roles.

And so, I’ve had a pretty varied experience and I’ve been able to see both the fun and then not so fun, the good and the bad, and everything in between that comes with being at those levels in the corporate world. And I will say, it has been challenging and it’s also been amazing with wonderful successes and opportunities. So, there’s absolutely been both sides of that. I have heard particularly that you always must work hard, but I learned something else along the way. I learned that it’s not always about how hard you work, particularly for women of colour, and I know we’re going to dive into a little bit of that more in our conversation.

4. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Rhonda. Obviously, there have been a lot of changes during the pandemic, do you think your experience has changed in any way during the pandemic?

(04:04) I don’t know so much that it has changed. I think what has changed is the level of awareness around us to some of the challenging situations that women of colour face, particularly in the corporate spaces and environments. And there seems to be more of an interest in understanding what some of those challenges are and an interest in helping to find solutions and pathways for us to begin to move forward.

And so, I am very encouraged by the level of awareness that is happening today because of the pandemic and, with Black Lives Matter and there’s just a lot happening in our world today. And I think we’ve got to continue to be curious on this journey as we move forward into solutions.

5. You mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement there. What impact do you think that and the growing polarisation especially that the US has had?

(05:06) Absolutely. It has been a powerful force for us all here. And for me, even personally speaking, I’ve been in the corporate space for a long time and just going about my work, doing my thing, but I will tell you that 2020 literally changed me and changed my perspective and I began to think about this world and this work that I do differently. In particular, how can I begin to make sure that I’m using my strengths and my skills to help elevate women of colour, to help position them in these higher-level leadership roles?

We absolutely must have those seats at the table because the decisions are made there, and without having that seat, we cannot have our voices heard and we don’t have the proper representation. And so it was personally impactful for me as a black woman with three black sons, the issue just was really heart-wrenching for me and it calls me to really begin to look at everything that I’m doing and how I’m contributing to this conversation.

(06:30) Fantastic question, Jon, it’s important that we all do this regardless of your race or gender. The challenges are real, they can be hugely subtle and you’re not going to know of them if we don’t open up the dialogue or be curious to find out more; and finding out more really helps to relate, engage, be compassionate, and it allows you to be supportive in your dealings and provide opportunities to offer support and create pathways and create opportunities.

So, I would recommend that it’s important to approach leaders of colour and ask them the questions of their experience. What has helped them to get to where they’ve got to? What has been some of their challenges and how they navigated through those challenges? Ask the questions of those people that sponsor women of colour and mentor them. Ask the questions of recruiters and hiring managers about their attraction and recruitment strategies.

You can tell a lot by how a company tackles and approaches racial diversity through its attraction and recruitment strategies. A couple of years ago, I did some really interesting work with a global professional services firm to really help them design workshops and familiarisation sessions to help BAME candidates become more familiar with the couple of the key competencies that they knew BAME candidates particularly struggled with. And that work was hugely rewarding, and it had an incredible powerful impact on the number of BAME female candidates that then secured permanent roles within this professional services firm.

I think it’s also important to speak with either previous employees or current graduates, and those are different levels of leadership in the organisation. That curiosity, as Rhonda said, because of the Black Lives Matter movement, the curiosity has been awakened and we really need to be able to be open to ask further questions and to really shine that light of curiosity to find out more.

6. In 2020, it was reported that of all the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 1% were black, 2% were Asian, 2% were Latino and 5% were women. So, there’s obviously a lot of work that needs to be done. What do you think had led to this and what impacts does this lack of representation have on the careers and outlook of those just starting out in the world of work?

(09:13) Yes, absolutely, Jon. those numbers are real and they’re representative of the uphill climb and battle that women sometimes face in the workspace. I think there are many reasons why we are where we are, particularly because the corporate space has always been a male-dominated place and it’s been dominated by white males and so that proceeds today. One of the important aspects for all of us, I believe, at the organisational level, we as leaders in both large organisations and small organisations have a tremendous opportunity in front of us to begin change.

In that change, one of the very first steps that I recommend is to do an honest assessment. This goes back to what Simi mentioned in terms of being curious, getting curious about your organisation and asking the question of “who are we,” not “who do we think we are,” or “who do we want to be,” but who are we right now in this day and this time particularly in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Once you understand who you are and there’s an honest assessment to give you some feedback, now you have an opportunity to look at where you are versus where you want to be. How does where you are align with your organisational goals? Are they in alignment with your values and what are you hoping for? Where is it that you want to go? And then you have an amazing opportunity to begin applying substantive actions that can begin to close that gap.

It’s important here to know that this is not about fault or blame. This is simply about being curious and gaining an understanding of where you are versus where you want to be. And then I would also just add here that it is important for these actions to go beyond performative statements and gestures that just sound good. These actions need to be substantive so that they can drive the change that you want to see in your organisation.

7. Is the notion of “only-ness” a challenge for women of colour? So, for example, being acutely aware that you are the only person in the room that looks like you. What impact can that have?

(11:42) I have, throughout my career, been in a position where I’ve often felt that “only-ness” and being the “only,” and it’s a heavy weight to carry. When you think in terms of representation, we think of when you are in the political system, the term representation matters. And that often applies in other aspects of our lives as well, whether it’s in your community, are you the only person in your community; and then in the workspace, are you the only one there?

When you are that only person, you’re the only woman and then combined with the fact that you may be the only woman of colour, that matters and there’s a heaviness that can come with that. There doesn’t have to be, but you can very easily begin to feel like you are misunderstood, that others don’t hear you the same way or you may not have the same cultural relationship to the organisation.

And so, for organisations to be aware that that may be present so that it is not just the employee’s responsibility of stepping and leaning into that, but it’s a meeting of the minds. It’s a meeting of halfway where they say, listen, we recognise that you’re the only, and we are going to do our very best to make sure that you are included, valued, honoured, and respected in this process.

So, it can be a heavy weight to bear, but I think it’s on both parties, both the organisation and the leader and the other organisation leaders to come together to minimise that burden.

(Simi – 13:25) Just to add to that as well, Jon. I love what Rhonda shared there because I think it is about the organisation but it’s also about the individual. And as a woman of colour, it’s really then recognising that also as an opportunity if you are the only woman of colour in the room as a woman and you stand out, but you’re also more likely to be remembered. So, the point about sticking out can also be quite a positive attribute and it gives you the chance to really allow the spotlight to be shone on your unique skills, abilities, qualities, and the value that you bring to the table. So, perhaps instead of shrinking away, you’re shrinking back. The opportunity there is to step forward and make a lasting impression and be seen, be heard and take the opportunity to be visible.

(Rhonda – 14:21) I love that. And just to wrap that up quickly, Simi. There is a quote that I love, and it says, “Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were clearly born to stand out?”. I love that and I often share that with my clients who are really dealing with what can sometimes feel heavy and being the only, and then we use that to step forward in all of their brilliantness and take that and use it as an opportunity to contribute in new ways to the organisation.

8. Now, Simi, we hear a lot about the importance of bringing your authentic self to work every day. Do you think that women of colour in particular struggle to do that? And if so, why, and what other barriers that they face? What steps can they take to overcome these?

(15:22) Yes, another great question, Jon. As a woman of colour myself and listening and hearing to experiences of other women of colour leaders, we fight hard to prove unfair stereotype that we’re unskilled or we’re too loud or too timid or not business-savvy, too brash, not sophisticated, which all of these are so untrue.

I recently coached a black CEO and she said she would always emphasise in any meeting that she was in that she has a law degree to ensure that she’s being taken seriously. And I think women of colour struggle with this because we are made to feel that you’re too much of this or too less of that and quite often worry about revealing too much about ourselves, just our personal selves as what we may reveal may be used against us in a promotion or in our progression at work.

So yes, some of the organisational cultures do intentionally or unintentionally make women of colour armour up. And these women armour up to protect ourselves from getting stung.

And similarly to the quote that Rhonda shared, I love Danielle Laporte quote, and she talks about you’ll always be too much or something, too much or small for someone, or too big or too loud or too edgy, but if you round up your edges, you lose your edge. And I love that quote because our uniqueness and our difference are what needs to be celebrated. But as we know, sometimes being different and standing out can be perceived by others as a threat and that we don’t quite fit the right image. And a huge part of the work that I do with women leaders is to coach them, to bring their authentic selves to work.

And by that I don’t mean that you must be this one authentic self in every situation that you’re in, but it’s mainly about being adaptive, I call it adaptive authenticity. Think of it as a light switch dimmer, you can turn the brightness up or down, depending on how much light you want to bring to a situation. So, for example, when I’m with my family and friends, my loud, giggly, enthusiastic self is out in abundance. On a scale of one to ten, it’s way up there being on the ten. but when I’m in a meeting with the executive team or the C-suite, I will dial back the giggly self and very kind of loud self, from say a ten to a six or a seven. But I won’t dial it all the way back to a zero or a one because then I’m not being my authentic self.

So, I think it’s hugely important to recognise what authenticity means and how you can adapt your authentic style in situations, so you feel comfortable and you feel that you’re able to be yourself. And just to add to that, it’s hugely important to engender a strong network of people around you. So, supporters, allies, sponsors, people that really recognise, acknowledge, value, and they appreciate your unique gift because it’s so important to be visible and create these opportunities. But also, when those opportunities present, take them up, step up, have your voice and opinions, and allow your message to be delivered.

Thank you very much. We must all help to create an environment where everybody can be their true self and that there are plenty of benefits to having that diversity across the board. Thank you very much for sharing your insights there.

9. Do you think there are any other issues and unique challenges women of colour are facing in the workplace right now and how can these be tackled? So, for instance, McKinsey recently reported that women of colour were more likely to have been made redundant or furloughed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(19:34) I think many women have been affected, especially those in retail, tourism, service industries. And the McKinsey research is important and highlights the very disproportioned number of women in colour in lowest skilled and lower earning roles and industries. And many of these industries are the ones that have been most impacted by the pandemic.

I think all the fathers and mothers that have both worked from home during this time, statistics do also show that the majority of the women have had to brunt the greater responsibility with childcare, home schooling, managing the house and managing their careers. And some of these women have then resorted to reducing their hours or having no choice but to leave their roles or some have been furloughed.

I think it really brings about some interesting opportunities here and some challenges that absolutely need to be addressed. It’s quite similar to the concept to the maternal wall, which is another phrase that’s often used to relate to working mothers and when women childbear or in childbearing age, or they need to take off time to give birth or be on maternity leave, their childcare responsibility. A lot of those circumstances can put women at a disadvantage in their careers compared to men and fathers and we call it the maternal wall.

And I think it’s really being cognizant of the fact that this is there; this is a real issue faced by so many women out there. You see also the concrete ceiling that many of your listeners will have also had and that was a term coined by Jasmine Barbers. And she describes this as being the significant kind of feeling that’s there, the tough hurdle for women of colour when they’re trying to reach and elevate their careers to the higher levels in the organisation.

And I think we need to be really aware of these because they are real and it’s about acknowledging these barriers and these hurdles and then being able to plan effectively and strategically to help navigate through them, but also put various support out for these women as well to help them. I think there’s a positive aspect to the pandemic that there’s so many organisations, they’ve realised that work can be done more flexibly and remotely.

Some, incredible women have created their own online businesses during these times. But I think there is a bigger challenge here to help women that careers or job opportunities had really been adversely affected during the pandemic for the reasons that I’ve just spoken about and really helping to bring them back into employment, helping to empower them and design ways in which they can be supported, they can be trained or they can have opportunities that really allows them to really be able to fulfil that part of their life too.

Thank you very much. I hope that the flexibility that has come from the pandemic does allow more women to participate in the workforce, that would be a real positive to come out of it.

10. Rhonda, do you think that women of colour feel they can’t easily call out bias or inequality that they may be experiencing? And what can employees do to challenge their employers on this and start to feel comfortable in raising their concerns from the bottom up?

(23:24) Yes, this is again, an important question and a part of it, I believe, ties to what Simi just shared with us in terms of authenticity. I think a part of it is for the leader to get confident in who they are and what they stand for, what they value, what’s important for them. There was a quote attributed Alexander Hamilton, and it says, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” And so, when I’m coaching leaders, I first want them to get clear and to embrace who they are and being able to use that authentic voice. And once you are there, then you can begin to bring that voice into the workplace, into the conversation, particularly when there are situations where you feel like there has been bias or inequities.

Now, that’s a challenging place to go. And I was in clubhouse the other day and we were having a conversation around a similar topic. There were many, many different perspectives, as you can imagine, but there were many in the room who felt they could not speak up because they felt hindered by several reasons. First and foremost, we tend to think about the extreme of losing your job but it’s not always that overt. There are sometimes many more subtleties that needed to be dealt with such as maybe women don’t want to speak up because they are fearful that it might impact the raise that they’re due to receive, or that promotion that they’re going for. They’re looking for advancement and they don’t want to be seen as the troublemaker who is causing disruption in the workplace.

So, there are many reasons why women of colour may not want to speak up when there are these times of inequity. The coaching, of course, around this is to find your voice and to really get comfortable with yourself. This is a place where I go with emotional intelligence and that being a passion of mine, I use emotional intelligence a lot to help leaders begin to move forward with some of these more uncomfortable types of conversations. And the first thing that I ask of them is to get comfortable with what they’re feeling and to understand what they’re feeling because the more you are understanding what you’re feeling and thinking and where that is coming from, you can then bring that forward into a conversation in a way that’s productive. And we want to make sure that as we’re sharing our thoughts and feelings, that is not just an emotional dump or burst because those types of outbursts can cause us to not be heard. And when speaking on such an important topic, we absolutely need our voices to be heard. So, to do that and bring that forward in a way that is productive is very important.

This is also where representation matters. When you feel that you are well-represented in the organisation, you are more likely to come forward. One of the things though that organisations can do, because again, I believe this is a partnership. And in order to be comfortable speaking about biases or inequities, the organisation must have built trust. And trust is not given, it is earned, and it’s earned over time. And so, this is something leaders need to be consistent with. They need to be steadfast in their commitment of building trust with all their team members, which will allow these conversations to take place.

And then the second opportunity for organisational leaders is to step forward and ask the questions, become curious again. Back to what Simi referenced earlier, be curious about the environment that you’re creating. Don’t always let the individual have to come forward. If you’re opening up that space, if you’re opening up these conversations, if you’ve built that trust, you are more likely to get valuable information that can help the organisation to grow and help the individual feel more confident and comfortable that they are working for the right organisation that values them for their diversity and everything they bring to the table.

11. Rhonda, how important is sponsorship in helping women of colour progress in their careers and how can those that are listening to this podcast go about seeking out sponsorship?

(27:58) I think sponsorship is critical and important for women of colour, especially when you may not feel like there’s adequate representation. However, it is important for every individual leader to know that your sponsor doesn’t have to look like you. Your sponsor just simply needs to be someone who values you, who respects you, who believes in you and is willing to be your champion. And so that means that they are willing to advocate for you, they are willing to speak and lift your voice both when you are in the room and when you’re not.

Most women have experienced being in a room or a meeting and making a statement only for it to get very little reaction. And then several minutes later, a male counterpart will make the same statement and suddenly people seem to hear that differently. Well, for sponsors, what that means is lifting that voice and saying, “Oh, Rhonda just made that statement a minute ago. So, it’s great to see that you agree with her”; or, “You know what, it’s so great to see our team come together. Rhonda made that same statement”; and somehow lifting that voice, again, often even when you are not in the room, because there are many conversations that are happening about you, without you.  And if that is the case, that sponsor can be the person singing your praises and making sure that others are aware of the contribution, understand some of your successes and why you are a person that they should be advocating for.

There’s another side, though, to sponsorship and that is also being willing to give feedback to the person that you are sponsoring. And if, for instance, they are not showing up in their full authentic self, if they are showing up with behaviours that could damage what you might see in them, which is their potential. But if they’re showing up with behaviours that are holding them back, being able to say so. So, creating this safe space for this honest conversation so that they can deliver a better work product, they can be more comfortable showing up as themselves and feel confident that they have a sponsor, a champion and an advocate who’s willing to help them get better and to show up better.

12. Simi, what role do allies at work play in helping women of colour and how can our listeners be an ally in the workplace?

(30:47) Great question again, Jon. An ally is someone who proactively offers help and support to help you achieve your goals. And, an ally is beyond just being a friend for you at work. They are someone that is going to have or create the opportunity for you to have open conversations with them. You can use them as a sounding board, seek advice from them and you’ll know that they have your best interests at heart.

And similar to what Rhonda said, when you’re not in the room, they also will be there to promote your work to others and promote the value that you can offer when you’re not even in the room. So that’s hugely important and adding onto what Rhonda said earlier, if you work in a male-dominated environment, it’s also recommended that you have a few male allies that you can trust to really boost your progression as well.

And these male allies should really recognise that is their privilege within your workplace and industry, and that they are at this area of position of privilege, and genuinely be committed to helping you succeed as well. So, it goes to the point that you don’t need to have someone that looks like you and sounds like you or is the same gender as you. Absolutely not, it’s someone that really values your unique gifts and recognises and acknowledges the work that you do.

And I think part of that is also being really open about sharing that you are looking for allies, that you are looking for people to really kind of take you and support you on this journey because you are absolutely ready to take your career to the next level, or put yourself forward for the next promotion. So, I think not shying away from those conversations or asking an individual to fulfil, some of that opportunity, responsibility, and role, which is important as well.

(Rhonda – 32:57) Simi, I love what you just said. One of the challenges I think for women in general, and particularly for women of colour is we are not always used to asking for help. And you just said that we need to step forward and say, “Hey, I’m looking for allies and sponsors”. And being able to get to say to someone, “I would love your help with this. Here’s my goal and here’s what I see. Here’s why I think you would be amazing as a partner for me in this”. And being able to have those conversations can sometimes be challenging. So, one of the challenges out there for all the women of colour leaders out there is are you asking for help and how are you asking for help? And are you doing that in a way that helps you become more successful?

Thank you, Rhonda and, Simi. And before I move on to the last question, I just want to thank you both for sharing your expert insights and advice and for sharing your experiences as well because they are incredibly valuable. So, thank you both.

13. For this last question I’m going to ask it to both of you if that’s okay. So, we’ll start with you, Simi. What is the one piece of careers advice that you would give to our listeners today?

(34:13) I think it’s one piece of advice I would have been given early in my career would be that being able to be open to broadening your network, creating new connections and making them as diverse as possible is really important because you don’t know how those connections and those relationships are going to unfold during your career and those individuals’ careers as well.

So, I think if you can start to do that from an early position in your career, it’s a fantastic way of building relationships and having diverse network around you and being able to really gain and understand things of others that are not similar to yourself. And going back to that point of curiosity, to be able to really learn from others and be able to celebrate that difference. And at the same time, like I said, you just don’t know where or what will happen with those connections or those relationships as yours and those individuals’ journeys unfold.

14. And Rhonda, may I ask the same question of you. If you had one piece of careers advice to share with our listeners today, what would that be?

(35:32) Really great question. I love ending on this question and I would say, one recommendation would be to be intentional, to truly think through what you were doing, where you’re going, why you’re going there, what you want.

And so, the intention then helps you carve a path forward. If I consciously decide that my goal and my aim is the C-suite. Once I have my eyes set on that target, everything else along the way is simply one more step on the journey. I may have some hurdles to overcome, I may have to go through them under them, around them, however I get past them, but I have my goal. I know that I’m aiming for the C-suite, whether it’s at this company I am at today or another company, I know where I’m going.

That type of intentionality I find helps people feel more joyful about their journey because they know where they’re going, they know that everything else is just a part of the process. And so, the recommendation I would have, and one piece of advice I would give is to be intentional.

About the authors

Simi Rayat works as a Corporate Leadership and Emotional Intelligence Coach helping leaders elevate their leadership brilliance. Simi is the founder of Wellbeing Face, a thriving psychology coaching and talent development practice. She works with clients across the globe in both private and public sector, across a diverse range of industries. Simi is a Chartered Business Psychologist and uses her deep expertise and passion in the psychology of people to share pragmatic applications for leadership development. Using this integrated and eclectic approach, Simi is able to create significant ‘ah ha’ moments for her clients and bring about compelling shifts in their thinking, behaviours and outcomes which lead to incredible and sustainable results.

Rhonda Y. Williams is an author, executive leadership coach, emotional intelligence strategist, and DEI Advocate. With past executive roles in healthcare, such as Chief Nursing Officer & Hospital CEO, Rhonda has personally experienced the effects of overwhelming stress. After a pair of dueling life crises, Rhonda decided to Stop the Madness. Today, she is known as The Stress-Free Leader and she helps leaders & entrepreneurs who feel there are simply not enough hours in the day transition to becoming Stress-Free Leaders. She also coaches leaders and minority women of color to prepare for and pursue executive level roles. She is the Host of The Coffee with Rhonda Show and The Stress-Free Leader Podcast.

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