I remember it so clearly. I took the day off to run some personal errands with my mom. I needed to call into a meeting while in the car and that is when it happened. We were discussing a training plan for a project that was wrapping up. As the change management professional on the task, training (among other things) was my responsibility. As I began to discuss my plan with the team, one of the project leads began to speak over me while abruptly trying to end the meeting. I immediately tried to get his attention as best I could over the phone, but he kept talking. I finally said, “Excuse me. EXCUSE ME. I am speaking. I have not completed my statement.” There was dead silence for what seemed like 2 minutes, but I am sure it was only a few seconds. Finally, he said, “Continue with what you were saying.” I finished my report in a couple of minutes and the meeting was adjourned. I totally forgot that my mother was in the car with me and heard the entire exchange. She looked to me and said, “I can’t believe that actually happens. I have seen women talk about it on TV, but I never thought you had to go through that. How is it that you are not angry?” The truth of the matter is I was angry. I was fuming mad, but because I am a black woman I cannot be seen as the “angry black woman” so I had to speak in a manner that did not offend even though I was offended.
This type of meeting exchange happens every day to women everywhere as men try to quiet us and “mansplain” the simplest ideas as if we are not as intelligent. Women of color watched the Vice-Presidential Debate and knew exactly what Senator Harris felt as she tried to get her point across before being interrupted by the Vice President. The need to assert ourselves in the face of bias and ignorance has become an unspoken job requirement for most women of color and you know what? It is getting old.
So, what can both white men and women do when they see women of color being demeaned in this manner in meetings and elsewhere?
1. Speak Up — Be a True Advocate
An online poll conducted by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey shows that over 80% of white women feel they are allies to people of color, but only 10% of Black women feel they have white allies in the workplace and 18% of Latinas feel this way. Where is the disconnect? The disconnect is communication. To be a true advocate, you must use your voice. Advocates communicate with those they are advocating for and understand their wants and needs. An advocate will interject when someone is being disrespected and try to help them re-assert themselves into the discussion. One more thing. A person cannot declare themselves an advocate or ally without first being invited into that role. That is the real problem. Many want credit for something they have not been invited to do and as a result no one is being served. Ally-ship requires verbs. Listen. Support. Encourage. If you are not doing something for someone, you are not an ally or an advocate.
2. Do not Interrupt
This should go without saying, but don’t interrupt. There are so many women of color who have given up on trying to speak in meetings because they are looked down upon by the men in the room and are never given the chance the complete a sentence. From a leadership perspective, you are missing out on tons of great ideas and great leaders who could move your company forward in ways you have never imagined. Take a minute to stop listening to yourself speak and allow others in the room to add to the conversation. Sometimes the interruptions are unintentional. When that happens, apologize, and try not to do it again. It’s that simple.
3. Empathize — Do not Assume
“She’s nasty and mean.” “Another angry black woman.” These are the words used to describe women who speak up for themselves. Why? Is it because she refuses to allow others to silence her greatness? Why is her greatness a threat to the egos of men and some women? Put yourself in her shoes. What would you do if someone constantly spoke over you? Would you let it continue or would you try to stop it? When men speak up for themselves, they are viewed as passionate and assertive. For women of color, we are angry, nasty and any other disrespectful name. Let’s take a moment to empathize with her. Do not assume you understand what she has been through. Ask yourself if this is the first time you have seen her disrespected in a meeting. How has she handled it when her ideas are ridiculed, silenced, and thrown to the side only to be repurposed by her white counterparts and received with praise? She is tired. She is disheartened and disappointed. Empathize with her.
In today’s world, women of color are not taken seriously in the office. Levels of professionalism are deteriorating daily. We must not allow social media to dictate how we treat one another. Inclusion and equity are the goals to aspire to and companies that embrace these concepts will find themselves leading the pack. So, the next time you see a woman trying to use her voice to move a conversation forward, help to amplify her. Do not silence her. She is worth listening to. She adds value to every table and every conversation. The next time you hear a woman of color say, “I’m speaking”, know that you should do the right thing and encourage those in the room to listen. If you do not, you will most likely miss out on her greatness.