Elephant in the room- story of a colored woman navigating in the corporate world

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

“No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” — Lupita Nyong’o, actor.

I attended the Women in Tech 2020 festival last week and diversity & inclusion has been a big subject with much debate. It’s well known that some people have to work harder than others just because of their socio-economic background. That gender and race sometimes even sexual orientation can be a barrier for professional growth. Yet, we hesitate to acknowledge it, even to ourselves. It’s like an Elephant in the room that everyone knows about yet only few try to push out. It just sits there, starting at us and making us twitch our feet in discomfort.

This is my story, as a woman of color. A happy, hopeful, and proud woman of color. And no, this is not a sob story rather a gallant, nostalgic and hopeful one. So do read on.

I am a third-generation citizen of (post-British) Independent India. Never knew my great-grandmother but from the little that I have heard, she lived a happy fulfilled life but not short of troubles. Illiterate, she slogged her days in manual labor on the farms (then a major occupation in India), paid heavy taxes to British Raj, and managed a modest living. My grandmother lived a very similar life with the exception that she could now own the land she cultivated in an independent India. Due to lack of infrastructure, access to education was difficult, there were limited job opportunities and the then ransacked India was still trying to keep its boat sailing in shaky waters of decolonization.

My mother, a second-generation independent Indian, went to school but could not finish college. She got married at 19 and a year later, I entered her life. Despite her limited education, my mother tried to change things. She is entrepreneurial and manages the household while juggling her part-time business. However, there are days where she does regret not having attained prominent professional success due to the lack of fundamental business skills that higher education could have provided.

I seemed to have been born in the right decade, the 90s. Just a mere 40 years post Independence, India had somersaulted itself into a rapidly developing world economy. While livelihoods in the smaller towns did not change much, the cities were drastically transforming into big business hubs with a booming job market. As my family moved to the capital, access to education improved and my parents ensured that unlike them, I wouldn’t have to struggle to finish my higher studies.

Despite the turbulent political history of my nation, I was amongst the few fortunate ones who received an equal education that any other man/ woman would have received in the more developed parts of the world. Fortunate enough to compete in a global talent pool. However, as I come to terms with the fact that best job opportunities are concentrated in the more developed economies ( which coincidentally also happen to be spared from colonial struggles) my naïve notions of living in an “equal world” are fading. I tried hard to believe that all of us have an equal chance in this world, equal access to opportunities. That the world is an equal place. But as I learn and grow, I realize that it is only half the truth. The world is not equal, not yet. Some people do have to work harder than others to have access to the same opportunities.

Working in Asia, I could not help but wonder why my bosses were all male and why there were so few females in top executive roles. Even though the representation of women in corporate India has increased from 21% five years ago to 30% now yet women in senior executive roles are a rarity. 60% of the Nifty-500 firms had just that one woman on board that the law mandates as of fiscal 2019 (Source: Mint.com).

Moving to Europe, I was expecting this number to be significantly lower and hoping to see women in stronger roles. Especially in France that proclaims equality as its core value. Even though I could notice a higher representation of women in the workforce, I was taken aback by the percentage of women appointed to the executive committee. For example, in my current workplace, only 1 out of 12 ex-com member is female. This was never so evident to me until this summer when my company threw a celebration where I saw for the first time all the ex-com members together in the same room. As a petite brown Asian I could not help but perceive them as unreachable and their roles as unattainable. They all looked so similar: extremely well dressed, well educated, white and male. Generally, I am a confident person and known for my courage to speak up. That day, however, I could not help but have this distant feeling of not belonging. Hopelessness washed over me as I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be part of that “in-group” because not only did I not look like them but also I could not relate to their struggles. Up until then I was in denial, I refused to accept the gender gap in corporates. That day however, I could no longer avoid the truth.

And here is the funniest stat I discovered this week, thanks to Tina Tcheng:

“There are fewer female CEOs across the fortune 500 than there are CEOs named James.”

Women are not the only under-represented group, other minority groups such as LGBTQ and colored people (Africans, Asians, Latin Americans) are equally missing at the top. Especially in ethnically rich regions like the United States and Europe.

The statistics above forecast a relatively bleak future for women of color such as me as well as for men of color. As of 2020, the funnel continues to grow narrower and weed out women and people of color from decision making roles and highest paying positions (Source: Women in the workplace 2020, McKinsey).

As hard as it is to say this again but the world is not yet equal. However, the good news is that the world is trying, very hard, every day to indeed be an equal place. And that gives me hope.

Diversity has become a slogan for most top corporates. Companies are addressing their hiring biases and looking at how they can create a more inclusive workspace. Managers are realizing their roles as harbingers of equal opportunities by consciously creating inclusive teams and helping grow talents from diverse backgrounds. Even though I have only had male managers, each one of them has been extremely supportive and helped me grow immensely in my career. I still yearn to have strong female role models in the corporate world, but I am optimistic that the next generation would not feel the absence of it. Thanks to movements just as Time’s Up, Women in Tech, and other such initiatives, the momentum that is being created is bound to accelerate. For the optimists amongst us, gender-balanced and culturally diverse workplaces would be commonplace in just a few decades. On the other hand, if we do not increase our pace now then, as per the gender gap report published by WEF, it would take 202 years for economic equality between men and women to be achieved around the world.

My faith lies in beautiful strong women and men that I have had the pleasure to meet these past few weeks and over the course of my career. Courageous and generous groundbreakers that continue to push and pave the way for others. Women like Smita Murarka, Sukirit Sharma and The Leela Sisters who have been positive examples in my life. Strong role models like Ayumi Moore Aoki, Dr. Cara Antoine and Carine de Meyere who are creating a community for women like me to express freely and grow with other like minded people (check out their platform here).

Together, with our combined strength, strong heart and kindness, we can kick this elephant out of the room and replace it with a nurturing environment for humans of all gender, race and sexual orientation. This is not an insane feet, by helping each other, by having structured mentorship programs, and by eliminating our hiring biases we can achieve balanced workplaces.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have done a great job but the work ain’t over yet. We are counting on you to keep pushing. The world is ready to be an equal place. Are you?

I write about change.

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