Conversations with Catalyst: Katherine Giscombe, PhD
These days, creating a successful career path is fraught with challenges. Compared to even just a few years ago, workplaces are now much more technological and team-oriented, calling for both “hard” and “soft” skills in getting the work done. Workloads have increased, as many US companies struggle with an economically uncertain business environment, downsized staff, and aggressive revenue targets. While CEOs are paid extremely high salaries, most workers’ wages have stagnated over time. In addition, a “career” is more likely to take place in several workplaces, a result of the high incidence of mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing. Finally, we know that women of color face more challenges than the average corporate worker in attaining success—they have a harder time finding influential mentors and sponsors, and often work in companies whose diversity policies don’t completely address sexist and racist atmospheres in the workplace.
In Catalyst research, we have interviewed senior women of color who have forged successful career paths in spite of the many challenges. In a sense, many of these women of color have already defied convention, just by being in those positions. The number of Fortune 500 corporate board seats held by women of color is extremely low—just 3 percent. As one Latina told us, “There are some interesting things at the executive level with respect to Hispanics. They have never dealt with someone like me. I’ve had people come and tell me, ‘You are the first Hispanic I’ve talked to and that I deal with.’”
While workplace strategies such as securing mentorship and sponsorship can be fruitful, a holistic approach to life can help women of color make decisions that will support both career growth and life goals. For example, people of color are more likely than their white cohorts to be very involved with their extended family—and women of color, in particular, may bear a heavy family burden. People of color with strong family ties may believe that it is important to live near or with their parents and spend time with them on a regular basis. They may also financially support parents or other members of their extended family, such as aunts, uncles, and in-laws. If having enough time with your family is a priority, it is important to choose a company and career with generous work-life policies—not just on paper, but in action.
You might also look for an organization that recognizes, and credits, the volunteer work that many people of color do in their communities, including work in schools and churches. Research has found that for many minority professionals, community work is an intrinsic and satisfying part of life and actually imparts leadership skills that can be transferred to the employing organization. If community involvement is important to you, try to find companies that have benefits that support efforts outside of work. For example, some companies allow employees to set aside time for volunteer activities—even a few hours a month. Other companies train employees in fund-raising for volunteer activities, and also help minority professionals access nonprofit boards, thereby giving them an early opportunity to develop leadership skills they can bring back to their workplaces.
Defining what is important in your life may be the best approach to finding the right place to work. DW
Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.
Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 800 member organizations, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work.