Conference Focuses Spotlight on Challenges and Successes for Multicultural Women in Corporate America

Glass Hammer




By Pamela Weinsaft
July 30, 2009 | 1:00 pm

In New York City last week, Working Mother Media hosted its annual Best Companies for Multicultural Women National Conference and Awards Luncheon to honor 20 companies, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Goldman Sachs, KPMG, Citigroup, and American Express, as being the best companies for multicultural women. The event, which took place over two jam-packed days, featured powerful speakers, including the inspiring Irshad Manji, New York University professor and director of the Moral Courage Project, as well as multiple workshop sessions designed to assist attendees in their continued development into resilient and innovative leaders.

One of the more popular sessions, however, was the lunch session entitled “What About the White Guys?” at which the mostly multicultural, 99% female audience got to be “flies on the wall” and “eavesdrop” on a conversation among several male executives.  Moderator Fenimore Fisher, vice president of diversity initiatives at Wal-Mart Stores/Sam’s Club, led the discussion, posing probing questions to the white male panelists about their paths to embracing diversity, the importance of diversity in today’s workplace and the challenges multicultural women may still face in corporate America.

Tom Sullivan, president of the supply chain and business processes at Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems, spoke of his personal and professional journey toward understanding the value of diversity and inclusion. “My professional attitudes shaped by absence of the [diversity] experience as child. I grew up in a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania which was not the most diverse area. It wasn’t until I had chance to go to [graduate] school that I [experienced diversity] for the first time… The richness of conversation and diverse opinions opened my eyes. Now I make it my professional goal to always expand the boundary of who I am by surrounding myself with smartest and most diverse people I can.”

Similarly, Frank McCloskey, vice president of diversity at Georgia Power, grew up and lived in a “white bubble of school, church, and friends” until moving to Atlanta to be Georgia Power’s manager for the region. After a two-day race awareness seminar, McCloskey had an epiphany. “For the first time, I understood the subtle forms of our racism that we were teaching our children.”

Allstate Insurance’s Vice President of Claims Dan Hebel, on the other hand, grew up in a small town that was 50/50 black and white. He explained, “As a young kid, everyone was friends.”  He added that his first experience with discrimination was not “black versus white” but “Protestant versus Catholic.” He really learned the value of multiculturalism, though, when he was relocated by Allstate to Miami. “The staff was over 90% Cuban. I was thrust into a culture that I had no idea [about]. I learned that I had better value the culture or [I wouldn’t] survive. I’ve taken that lesson and applied it to everything I’ve done from that point on. Everybody has a turning point--that was mine. I learned that you can’t know everything and the more you leverage diversity the better off you’ll be.”

Of the old boys’ club, the panelists agreed it still exists. Said Hebel, “From the moment I walked into the office, I was taken [into the old boys’ club] immediately. I was told who would be my mentor, what club to join, etc. There were no formal meetings. It is just a wink and a nod and you know who you are talking to. [It became a challenge] when I chose not to be a part of the group because it is hard not to be a part of the group when it makes you successful.” He added, “The old boys’ club is still there. Don’t think it is not--it is just behind the curtain. It started to surface again because of affinity groups. The way to make that go away is inclusion. If you include everybody [in the affinity groups], it is so much better.”

McCloskey said that the American corporate organization is the white male culture--linear, forward thinking, a low tolerance for emotion and ambiguity, and the valuing of status and rank over collaboration and partnership. “White males do have to understand that they have a systemic advantage being white males. Everyone is assimilating into this culture of rugged individualism and competitiveness. These are not attributes that will make the workplace fair.”

To make the corporate environment more inclusive, the panelists agreed that management needs to provide transparent feedback to everyone, especially multicultural women. To facilitate that, the creation of a trust relationship is essential. “One reason some men [in the workplace] don’t have direct conversations with women is a fear of retribution. If you don’t have ability to talk to the person, the matter could end up in [human resources].  But we need to [be able to] share the key learnings discussed behind closed doors. I find that if you create a relationship with someone, you can tell them almost anything,” said Hebel.

McCloskey concurred, but added that it is the difference in communication styles that sometimes causes trouble. “White male executives look for things to be simple.  Communication between white male and female [(white or of color)] can be complicated.  The big difference is that women want more information and want to talk it through more, whereas white males will just say, ‘I can do it.’” His advice is to overcome this by “taking the most complicated situation and making it simple.”

Sometimes, despite the best efforts on the part of a woman of color, her advancement could still be slowed by a manager who has not yet fully embraced diversity, consciously or unconsciously. The panelists advised that the way around this is to form relationships with others in the organization. “You are going to have to figure out if you are going to stay with the [manager] or not. Ask yourself if this person is going to get it. If not, don’t beat your head against the wall. Figure out how to get to another person in the organization that could ultimately sponsor you,” advised Hebel.

Panelists summed up by pointing out that while those who are working in corporate America do currently have to assimilate into the white male culture, women should not try to become cookie-cutter copies of white men. Sullivan listed the many “success traits” of women, including “an incredible ability to listen and an emotional intelligence” and McCloskey emphasized the need for women to be themselves. “Every time I promote someone, it is because of who that person [actually] is.”

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