At DiversityInc’s “Women of Color and Their Allies” event on Nov. 4, 2020, Dr. Stephanie Creary gave a presentation titled “The Importance of Inclusion and Belonging at Work: Spotlight on Women of Color.” As a professor of management specializing in identity and diversity at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Creary’s research homes in on evidence-based, data-driven strategies that are designed to promote the hiring of WOC during workforce planning.
Creary began her presentation with what she called “the bad news” first. She established that inclusion and the concept of “belonging” are crucial because they can “enhance the experiences and the success of women of color in the workplace.” Unfortunately, Creary said the statistics show that, due to an overall lack of inclusivity and workplace culture that promotes belonging, “women of color continue and regularly lag behind their peers on many measures, including those related to how women of color feel about their workplace experiences and how they feel about their opportunities” — both their access to and their representation in leadership roles.
According to Creary’s collected research on representation statistics of WOC in the workplace, 9–12% are represented in mid-management roles, 3–6% are in the C-suite or hold VP positions and less than 5% are on Boards of Directors. She then noted two salient statistic ranges, derived from McKinsey & Company’s Lean In study: only 37% to 52% of WOC are motivated to be role models and change culture, and only 41% to 55% have had an interaction, either formally or informally, with a senior leader. In other words, potentially 45% to 59% of WOC have never interacted with senior leadership at all. “We’re not even unpacking the qualitative differences of the support that women of color are getting,” Creary noted. “We’re talking about interactions. So [literally] ‘coming into contact with [senior leaders].’”
“We all know that mentorship, sponsorship, advocacy, coaching — all of these great interpersonal relationship building skills are absolutely essential to the success of everyone in an organization,” Creary said. “Our own drive, motivation, self-care, efforts, performance and sheer grit is part of the equation, but so is the support of other people … It’s something we should be thinking about as we’re trying to ask larger questions around being allies.”
In her research with colleagues at Wharton People Analytics, Creary believes moving the needle on inclusion, belonging and allyship starts with something as deceptively simple as reaching out and connecting. That said, she also distinguished the nuance of each concept, saying “belonging” is the “emotional experience of connection to work, the workplace, the people you work with and the feeling of being part of a community.” While they are related and seem synonymous, Creary differentiates “inclusion” as the idea of an employee “feeling valued for their contributions,” even when said contributions “push against the status quo or is different from the norm.”
Creary explained that while many companies have developed robust diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging strategies over the years (practices such as professional development programs, mentoring and sponsorship programs, employee resource groups and training managers to be more effective at coaching a wide variety of people including WOC), what many companies fail to do is to follow-up and measure their effectiveness. “While we’re doing a lot of work, we’re not always linking this work to important outcomes,” Creary said.
Creary then posed the question: “What are women of color more likely to experience?” According to her research, they’re more likely to speak out against bias when it occurs; more likely to advocate for other women and people of color in hiring; as well as more likely to support their company’s diversity work. Implicitly, these habits can result in the exclusion or shunning of WOC due to the connotations of being “difficult.”
In addition to obviously unlearning both conscious and unconscious biases, Creary believes it all comes back to allyship. During the tail-end of the presentation, Creary conducted a live poll asking the virtual audience to consider the following talent development scenario:
“Your company is concerned about the representation of women of color in leadership positions and what that means for equity and the company’s effectiveness. You are asked to help address this issue. Do you recommend:
- Including more women of color in important projects
- Giving women of color more constructive feedback
- Encouraging more women of color to take leadership roles”
While the responses were tallied, Creary gave her working definition of allyship, which she primarily defines as a behavior and action that, while not contingent on a particular race or gender, oftentimes implicates certain races and genders. “Allyship is when someone who has some level of power and privilege uses that power and privilege to help someone who could benefit from their support,” Creary said.
Creary also noted intersectionality within allyship and how allies can come in all forms. For example: Black women and white women might experience the same gender-based inequities in an organization, but race further influences the experiences of WOC. “White women are often more represented and more influential in the capacity of organizations so having white women as allies could be a situation that is very real,” Creary said before noting that she herself, being a Black female professor at an esteemed institution like Wharton, has certain “responsibilities” and is afforded access to resources that can be extended to those who might not have the same opportunities as she has had.
“[When] we’re talking about allyship, I’d like us to keep in mind this notion of mutuality, that it’s really about attending to and supporting one another’s needs and goals,” Creary explained. “How do we develop these allyship relationships that involve mutual understanding, mutual validation and mutual caring if we actually want them to work?”
Once the poll was fully tallied, Creary debriefed the results while also disclosing the common pitfalls of each method when approaching the talent development scenario with allyship in mind.
- About 13% of respondents said to give WOC more constructive criticism. Creary explained that “the notion of feedback — especially performance-related feedback — brings with it perhaps an unconscious or a conscious underlying assumption that there’s something about a woman of color’s performance that is preventing their ability to ascend.” According to her data, “qualifications are not always the reasons why women of color lack representation in leadership roles,” and that there shouldn’t be the assumption that “performance and qualifications are the primary barriers to women of color’s success at work.”
- About 25% preferred encouraging more WOC to take leadership roles. However, Creary noted that asking WOC to “raise their hand and sign up” presupposes that they haven’t already been doing so in the first place. “Women of color are often told to lean out,” Creary said. “She may have already been trying to volunteer for leadership roles but is being made invisible — not being seen or heard.”
- The vast majority of respondents believed the best course of action to increase representation of WOC in leadership positions was including them in important projects. Creary said “It’s important to help her and others understand why she’s there beyond just being a woman of color, so as to not enhance perceptions and feelings of tokenism.” In other words, the value of WOC’s contribution to an important project should be her knowledge, skills, abilities and talents, as opposed to just her identity.
Concluding her analysis of the poll, Creary admitted that as a professor, she often avoids giving multiple-choice tests because she feels every answer is slightly right. In a plot twist, Creary then revealed that (presuming you don’t stumble into the aforementioned pitfalls) the three choices in the talent development scenario are all valid opportunities to stimulate WOC’s feeling of inclusion and belonging at a workplace. Creary said the key idea she wants allies to take away from her talk and her research is there needs to be a concerted effort of changing WOC’s experience for the better, whether it’s giving support and constructive feedback that she needs to succeed; always advocating for her, especially when she’s not in the room; and (literally) including her in the conversation.
“Lean more into your advocacy and sponsorship behavior,” Creary said. “It is certainly the most important and most effective way to be a better ally to women of color.”