He didn’t see a difference between the way he was treated and I was treated in the workplace.
Throughout my career, I have struggled to find a senior black female to mentor me because most of the companies I have worked for do not have black women in executive leadership roles.
I have always envied my white colleagues because all they had to do was look to the executive leadership team or to the board to find someone that looked like them.
I’ve always imagined how much more confident and inspired I would feel knowing that I could identify with the people at the top. Knowing that there was a possibility that I too could get there someday. I haven’t lost hope that maybe one day, I’ll be able to do so, or maybe my son, daughter, or grandchildren would.
Over the years I have tried to convince myself that race didn’t matter when it came to moving up through a company. My grandmother and mother always told me that if I worked hard enough, I would make it. Hollywood movies like “Working Girl”, with Sigourney Weaver and Melanie Griffith validated this hypothesis.
In time, I have come to realize that many opportunities for advancement are not only based on performance, they are also strongly based on one’s network. In fact, in some companies, one’s network plays a disproportionately important part in getting you into the job and ahead in the company.
From kindergarten through high-school and university, some of my white colleagues have benefited from multiple favors and advantages that come with these networks. I call it the “White Man’s Club”. It consists of an informal network of privileged white men who play golf together on Sundays, whose families know each other and do favors for one another on a regular basis. I actually became acutely aware of this fraternity a few years ago.
At the time, the company I worked for launched a mentorship program as part of its employee development program. I was keen to join the initiative because I saw it as an opportunity to learn, develop, hone my leadership skills, and grow my network. I was asked to identify a leader within the company whose management style inspired me.
Ideally, I would have preferred to find a minority group female executive because I wanted to also learn how to navigate my career in a corporate environment as a black woman. None of the leaders fit this profile so I selected a white man who had traveled extensively throughout Africa. That was the closest that I could come to diversity.
During our first meeting, he asked me to tell him a bit about my past work experience and what I expected to gain from the mentorship. I told him that like him, I aspired to be part of the executive leadership team of the company. I asked him to tell me about his journey to the top.
He proceeded to explain that in his last year of university, a friend of his parents offered him a paid internship in the company. After working there for a year, he was identified as a high-potential and was placed on a fast-track development program.
The company then paid for him to do an MBA at a reputable institution and shortly after he was given an ex-pat assignment to get some overseas experience. Upon his return to headquarters, he was asked to head a small team. A few years later, he became the global head of human resources.
“My network is what has gotten me here, so if you want to be successful, this is the indispensable thing you need to have,” he said proudly.
As a black woman I thought, how can I ever build a network of white men ready to vouch for me, support me, get me stretch assignments, an MBA, and an ex-pat assignment. He had had this support since before he was even born.
How could I ever build such a network in the space of a few months or years? The truth is, I could not. And this is the challenge that most minority people face. You compound this further by being a minority woman and you’ll realize how challenging it is for us to ever make it to the top.
As a minority woman, you start the race with a VW Beattle while many white men start it with a Ferrari. We all know who will win in that type of race.
My mentor took me to meetings to introduce me to his network. He gave me assignments and opportunities to be visible among the group. While he commanded the respect of the room whenever he spoke, I realized that the others started fidgeting or typing on their Blackberry phones when I did. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they would speak over me when I tried to explain certain concepts or provide feedback.
The harsh reality is that society doesn’t respect black women and this tends to carry over into the board room. There are of course a few women that make it, but once they get there they are so busy surviving — fighting to get heard and to be respected that most of them don’t even have time to mentor. And since there are few roles for minorities at the top, there are those who feel so threatened by another minority taking their place that they do not even want to share their journey or network to help you get there (I will expand on this in another post).
In conclusion, I would add that at the time, my mentor did not acknowledge his privilege. He didn’t accept that his color, gender, and network had made it easier for him to move up through the ranks of the company. He clearly couldn’t understand my challenges and so the mentorship relationship slowly came to an end.
In the wake of the recent global reckoning on racism, he reached out to me to apologize. He had done a lot of introspection over the years and realized how privileged he was. He even used that same privilege to get both his daughters jobs at another Fortune 500 company. When he called me, he asked:
“How can I truly mentor you, I promise this time I’ll really listen. We need to change the mentalities in the boardroom vis a vis black and minority women”.
As I heard this, I was reminded about why I am an impatient optimist. I knew in my heart that it might take a while, but a change is indeed going to come.
Thanks for reading my perspective.