When we talk about the barriers that prevent female leaders from getting to the top, we often ignore one uncomfortable truth: women often let their racial and generational biases prevent them from helping each other.
"I'm rejected," one white millennial woman told us. "Women at the top don't understand me and won't take the time to get to know me. I'm not only excluded from the good ol' boys club but also disconnected from the people I thought I could count on — other women."
"The tensions are not recognized or talked about," we heard from an Asian-American management consultant. "If you bring it up — and I have, carefully — white women either deny it or gloss over it."
For young women and women of color, the discriminatory tendencies of some men (both conscious and unconscious) are not the only issue. What cuts deeper is the lack of support they get from established white women and one another.
To better understand — and hopefully close — this divide, we interviewed a multiethnic, multiracial, multigenerational group of 20 women — executives, consultants, judges, researchers and professors — between December 2011 and March 2012. The bad news is that they confirmed this chasm exists: "I would describe the relationship between women of color and white women in corporate America as an uneasy truce," said Dr. Stacy Blake-Beard, a black female professor at Simmons College. "Truth be told baby boomer women haven't tried to understand the generation that is coming next," added Helayne Angelus, a white former president of the Network of Executive Women, who is now a principal at Kalypso. "We're polite, but not fully engaged."
The good news is that we think it stems from benign neglect rather than bold prejudice. That means we can change it by increasing awareness. In her new book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes, "All of us — men and women alike — have to understand and acknowledge how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo." Indeed, as senior Kraft executive, Regenia Stein puts it, when women of different races talk at each other rather than with each other, "that is the white women's fault and the women of color's fault."
Luckily, this is also a problem that women can solve all by themselves.To make progress in today's workplace, all female leaders must acknowledge their part in the divide and begin to work together for their mutual benefit. White women, in particular, have to recognize that they're in positions to open doors for women of color and the next generation.
These eight action steps will help:
- Admit that you don't know what you don't know. Every woman's life experience may not mirror your own. Become open to gaining new knowledge. Recognize that each individual — regardless of age, racial or ethnic background — has something to learn and to share.
- Recognize that all women are more than their demographic identities. Make sure to see and understand everyone's whole self.
- Acknowledge your own biases. Reflect on what you learned as a child about different types of women. Decide if your beliefs still serve you well and make a conscious choice to change the ones that don't.
- Assess your inner circle. Do all of your closest friends look just like you? Expand your group to include women from different ethnic groups and generations.
- Accept that growth is not always comfortable. Understand that you will feel uncomfortable as you develop cultural competencies.
- Leverage employee networks to build new relationships. Use these connections to engage in courageous conversations about race, socioeconomic and generational differences in your organization.
- Evaluate whether you currently champion other women publicly. If you don't, consider why and seek out a diverse group of people you're willing to stand up for.
- Ask for help from other women. Find women from multiple ethnic groups, ages and life experiences to mentor you in your development.