Women of Color Need Leaders of Courage

KathyGiscombe_smallYears of research on women of color has led me to believe that courage is crucial to combating bias. Yet relatively few business leaders have the courage required to buck organizational norms.

If leaders truly want their companies to include women of color, they have to prepare for profound change. What is this change, and how can we bring it about?

Catalyst’s recent report on inclusive leadership identified four traits as essential to being an inclusive leader: empowerment (enabling direct reports to develop and excel); humility (admitting mistakes, learning from criticism and different points of view, acknowledging one’s own limitations, and seeking help from others); accountability (demonstrating confidence in direct reports by holding them responsible for performance); and courage (setting aside personal interest to do what needs to be done for the good of the team and acting on convictions and principles even when it requires risk taking).

One common example of courageous behavior at work is when a team member develops a unique idea that has never been tried before. Her manager may worry that his boss won’t like it and will be critical of him for authorizing his team member to move forward. In spite of the risks, a courageous leader will tell his team member to go ahead and will work with her to craft a compelling argument in favor of her project.

This is one level of courage, but managers and leaders need to kick it up a notch if they are going to make real change for women of color.

This is where true leadership comes in. When you take a closer look at those charged with carrying out diversity-related change in many organizations, it’s clear why inequality continues to flourish. Many managers do not truly favor more inclusive policies—or they are afraid to “rock the boat” by enacting them. For example, a diversity leader may enact a policy that focuses on getting women of color into mentoring programs, without taking on the difficult task of ensuring that the mentors they are assigned are providing the same political support and “insider” knowledge to women of color as they are to white women.

In your organization, has a manager ever relied on superficial judgments and stereotypes when interpreting certain behaviors? Too often, subpar performance from members of majority groups is still justified, rationalized, or otherwise forgiven, whereas similar performance from members of marginalized groups (e.g., women of color) is subject to intense scrutiny, is attributed to overall incompetence, and frequently results in irreversible damage to professional reputation and standing.

Women of color need managers who will challenge this behavior, and human resources departments that will oversee individual performance reviews and take note of any excessively personal or biased comments therein.

Modeling courage can prompt similar behavior across entire teams. If senior leaders truly want to make change, I encourage them to reward courageous behavior on the part of middle managers. Women of color need champions who are familiar with the obstacles they face at work—and are willing to take the risks necessary to overturn them. 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 members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.

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