At DiversityInc’s second annual Women of Color and Their Allies event, panelists Michele Meyer-Shipp, Principal, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at KPMG (No. 9 on the DiversityInc Top 50 list) and BillieJo Johnson, Group Manager of Enterprise Program Project Management Office at Toyota Financial Services (No. 18 on DiversityInc Top 50), kicked off the event with a conversation of how women of color can support other women of color.
Moderated by Lissiah Hundley, head of strategic partnerships at DiversityInc, Meyer-Shipp and Johnson gave advice and shared personal experiences regarding both encouragement they felt and roadblocks they overcame.
Meyer-Shipp began by defining what women of color supporting women of color looks like. She said advocacy needs to continue beyond interpersonal interactions to instances when other women of color are not in the room. She said though mentoring and sponsoring other women is part of this support, it is also crucial to speak up for them when they are not present.
“It’s speaking up on behalf of each other when there are opportunities, when we have challenges, being a support person for my sister who’s not in the room when the hard conversations need to be had,” Meyer-Shipp said.
Meyer-Shipp gave an anecdote about an experience she had working for another company. She said a woman who had just returned from maternity leave was not being considered for a promotion because higher-ups assumed she was not interested. Meyer-Shipp said she spoke up, questioned the assumption and recommended the executives ask the woman. It turned out the woman was interested in the position, and ultimately got it.
“The comment was, ‘Well, she just came back from having a baby. I’m sure she wouldn’t be interested in the opportunity,’” Meyer-Shipp said. “And I said, ‘Has anyone bothered to ask her if she was interested?’ It caused a conversation to occur with her, and she got the job.”
Johnson said additionally, support looks like women of color helping one another to tackle hurdles. She said some examples of these hurdles include not having exposure, not having support of the management team, not being invited into networks and not having one’s work promoted by others. Johnson is the first African American woman executive at Toyota Financial Services and said she wants to use her position to bolster others. She began the “Reach” program at Toyota, a group that works to foster relationships between women of color and empower them in the workplace.
Related Story: Toyota’s BillieJo Johnson, Her Path to the Creation of REACH
“I would not be here without support of sponsors,” she said. “I would not be here without grit and hard work and understanding how to navigate my career and how to overcome those obstacles that I just talked about … Although I may have been the first, I’m not the only.”
Next, the women discussed challenges that get in the way of this sponsorship, mentorship and support.
Johnson described what she called the “me” effect. She said it is easy to get caught up in one’s personal responsibilities and not prioritize helping to lift up others. However, she said, everyone relies on networks of people to do their job.
“You are not doing this job by yourself,” she said. “Come out of yourself and know that there’s more than you to make things happen.”
Johnson said she also struggles with others dismissing her passion for helping women of color advance as just part of an agenda.
“How I can combat that is by saying ‘This is an untapped resource of talent … These women contribute in a way that you don’t even know.’”
Meyer-Shipp said attitudes of resentment and competition among women of color hold them back. The attitude that “there’s only room for one of us,” she said, is toxic.
“There should never ever come a day where any of us bad-mouths another one of us in the workplace,” Meyer-Shipp said.
She said women of color tearing one another down reflects poorly on them and further disenfranchises those involved.
“We’re talking about each other, and then the white men who hold the seats of power are going back to the boardroom saying, ‘You see those two fools over there? They’re not professional, they don’t support each other. We’re going to let them in this circle?’” Meyer-Shipp said. “We have to be careful about that.”
Johnson said she sheds the “me” effect and prioritizes empowering and helping other women of color.
“It is a passion for me because I believe in this untapped resource of women,” she said.
Meyer-Shipp said for her, this prioritization looks like dedicating one day a month to mentoring others.
“I’ve had women help me navigate my career in ways that have been incredible,” she said. “When I joined KPMG and when I joined my prior organization, there were two women — one was a woman of color, one was a white woman — both of them, in each organization, took me under their wings and helped me navigate the organization, and they weren’t even a part of my team.”
Related Story: HBR Study Finds Workplace ‘Inclusion’ is Not Enough to Help Women of Color Feel Supported