Managing Ethnic Stereotypes That Enter the Room Before You Do: A Panel Featuring Toyota’s Billie Jo Johnson and PepsiCo’s Merary Simeon

During DiversityInc’s Women of Color and Their Allies event on Nov. 4, Merary Simeon, North America vice president of diversity and engagement at PepsiCo and Billie Jo Johnson, general manager at Toyota Motor, North America discussed the stereotypes they faced as women of color in the corporate space. PepsiCo was a DiversityInc Noteworthy Company in 2020 and Toyota ranked No. 10 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list. Anita Ricketts, chief of staff at DiversityInc, moderated the conversation. 

Ricketts began by simply asking whether either of the women had experienced being stereotyped in the professional world because of their genders and ethnicities. Simeon, who is Latina, said she had experienced racist stereotyping since she was a child. 

“I remember when the first teacher told me that I will end up like all other Latinas — young, pregnant and on drugs,” Simeon said. “Fast-forward into corporate America: I remember during one of my travels to another country, a CHRO told me that I would come back with a van full of kids.” 

Other stereotyping Simeon said she has faced included people saying she was too emotional and friendly and believing that her job must be easy because she was not smart. Simeon said she had internalized some of these racist and sexist ideas, despite working hard to prove naysayers wrong and achieving a role as an executive at a Fortune 500 company.

“I remember when I went to this speaking coach, we were practicing and she told me something like, ‘Okay. Repeat this, I’m smart,’ and I couldn’t repeat it,” Simeon recalled. “This is how nervous I was. I could not repeat it. And then when she made me repeat it, I started crying — literally crying. This was about three years ago. And it was because all these stereotypes and all these microaggressions that people just continuously told me about me not being smart, even though I went through it and I fought through it, and I am where I am today. It had taken a toll on me that I didn’t realize.”

Despite achieving success, Simeon said that over the years, the prejudice she faced left her feeling burnt-out and depressed. Ricketts and Johnson echoed Simeon’s sentiments, relating them to their experiences of being labeled “angry Black women.” 

Johnson, who works within Toyota to reach out to other women of color and encourage them, has said she’s also personally experienced others feeling threatened by her authority or accusing her of being pretentious just for showcasing her intelligence. She also said she had recently asked a white male coworker about stereotypes of Black women he was aware of. 

“He said, ‘Well, they’re really strong, protective and tough. And don’t cross them, especially when it comes to their children,’” Johnson recalled, saying that some of those stereotypes appear positive but are often misinterpreted into negative attributes that pigeonhole Black women and can stagnate progress.

In light of the current racial climate where callouts of systemic racism seem to be at a high, the women also discussed whether they think these issues are more prevalent or simply more recognized now. Johnson said she believed it was a combination of the two.

“I think we, as people, have this heightened questioning and maybe heightened suspicion around, ‘What was that?’” Johnson said. “But I also think it is happening more. I think there’s a big spotlight on it, and it’s an ugly spotlight.”

Given the brighter spotlight, Johnson said awareness is only the first step.  “There’s some good coming out of this sort of awakening, if you will,” she said. “But I think … it is time to move from openness to action. It’s great that we’re open about it. We were aware of it. We’re somewhat awake about it, but we need to move to action to strike change so that there is equity and fairness.”

Simeon also added that social media has had an impact in conversations about race. It has shed light on issues that have always been prevalent, but also has the downside of creating echo chambers for people with similar views to retreat.  

“It is creating a way to separate us, instead of talking about the things that we could do together, instead of talking about things that could inspire us to be a better nation, to be a better human beings overall. I think the call to action to us is really ‘how do we flip the switch to use these platforms for good?’” Simeon said.

Furthermore, Simeon and Johnson discussed the importance of action in creating an equitable workplace for all. While Ricketts mentioned that data has helped reveal gaps and areas for growth, Johnson added that sometimes observing the makeup of employees in various positions within a company can be just as telling. 

“Sometimes, you can’t get to the data, right?” Johnson said. “Sometimes, it’s, ‘Can we just look around the room? Can we look around the room and see where there’s a gap?’ …. And if there are these big gaps in the pipeline, that kind of implies and maybe says boldly that there is a broken system, and it may be biased and there may be stereotypes in the system.”

Simeon and Johnson also discussed how PepsiCo and Toyota work to provide education that mitigates stereotypes. As a leader at Toyota, Johnson says she has opportunities to use her voice to educate others about social awareness and how to disrupt biases. She said a combination of formal and informal programs and conversations have helped shape Toyota’s education around equity. 

“I think it’s grassroots. I think it’s leadership-led … Allies are important,” she said. 

Simeon also said PepsiCo invests in diversity education that focuses on understanding others’ experiences through diversity programs and storytelling. She said that having conversations about her identity and experience has helped her identify which doors are open and closed for her and where she may reach out to allies for help.

PepsiCo began an essay series called “Black in America” that explores the personal experiences of Black professionals at PepsiCo.

“There’s a connection there, and we have found these to help a lot with the biases, with the blind spots and also lead to additional courageous or meaningful conversations with those particular associates or even others around them,” Simeon said.

The conversation ended with an audience-submitted question about how to respond to microaggressions and double standards that white women and men in similar positions do not face. Simeon said the response should invite people into conversations about prejudice by interrogating what comments like “You should smile more” might imply.

“One of the things I’ve found that has worked for me is following up with them. ‘Tell me more. What did you mean by that?’ Have them elaborate more to hopefully help them get to a place where they realize ‘Oh, that was dumb for me to say’ because these are really signs of microaggression,” Simeon said. “They could then question themselves: ‘Why am I really asking this question? Why was that uncomfortable? How did that affect other people?’”


To return to event page, click here

Latest News

woke politics

Republicans Launch a War on ‘Woke’ Politics in Hopes of Big Legislative Wins in 2022

In 2020, former President Barack Obama warned that the phrase “Defund the Police” could become a dangerous rallying cry for the conservative right. But now, Republicans have apparently taken that warning one step further, declaring war on all things “woke.” Allan Smith and Sahil Kapur of NBC News wrote that…

women in politics

Women Remain Vastly Underrepresented in Local Government, Despite Conventional Wisdom Suggesting Otherwise

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sat behind President Biden during his first speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28 — representing the first time two women held such important and high-ranking political offices. Even after such a historic moment, the reality…

voter restriction

Florida Follows Georgia’s Lead, Approves Racist Anti-Voter Restrictions Aimed Primarily at Democrats and People of Color

Not content with letting Georgia be the only state in the South demonized for its bigoted and racist attacks on voter rights, Florida has jumped into the fray in issuing its own series of new and highly controversial “Jim Crow-esque” anti-voting restrictions aimed specifically at disenfranchising Democrats and voters of…

Kentucky Derby

Inspired by Protests Over Breonna Taylor’s Death, Humana and Kentucky Derby Festival Launch Diversity and Inclusion Initiative in Louisville

Ahead of the 147th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1, Kentucky Derby officials and Humana (No. 25 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020) have announced a new equity initiative meant to make the race more accessible and welcoming to everyone, regardless of race, gender, age…

crimes against human ity

‘Crime Against Humanity’; Global Report Says the US Should Be Prosecuted in International Criminal Court for Ongoing Police Murders of Black Americans

In what has been described as a “devastating” report, human rights experts and lawyers have investigated and released a 188-page analysis of the ongoing police brutality and killing of Black Americans in the U.S. Their verdict: the country is guilty of “crimes against humanity” and should be prosecuted for its…

Tokyo, Olympics

Tokyo Olympics to Encourage Significant Increase in Gender Equality Among Event’s Corporate Sponsors

Besides simply being a showcase for some of the most talented and athletic men and women on the planet, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics are hoping their event this summer can also help promote significant change in corporate culture, both in Japan and around the globe. Bloomberg’s Ayai Tomisawa…