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?’”

 

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