Our national reckoning on racism is leading to some welcome changes at powerful institutions.
For years, companies, non-profits, and political organizations have failed to elevate people of color, particularly women of color, to leadership positions. In the coming months, many organizations will look to quickly course-correct to prove their commitment to anti-racism (and we may even see the first woman of color vice president).
For traditionally white-led organizations, this is a welcome shift. However in my own leadership experiences and in coaching women of color leaders, I see how these well-meaning intentions lead to harmful impacts. All too often, women of color are hired for leadership positions, but then held to standards of leadership that reify the very culture that held them back in the first place.
Seasoned practitioners like Tema Okun have analyzed how white supremacy upholds a model of leadership that rewards extreme individualism, a constant sense of urgency, and unrelenting perfectionism. These leadership models are inconsistent at best and harmful at worst to the authentic leadership of many women of color who lead through consensus building and teamwork, slowing down to open up creativity, and developing a culture of learning and appreciation.
Choosing a woman of color to lead means organizations letting themselves be shaped, transformed, and yes, truly led by women of color — and this takes more work than simply swapping a white face for a melanated one.
Asking a woman of color to lead an organization steeped in a culture of white supremacy without simultaneous work to dismantle that culture leaves women of color leaders constantly fighting against a tide that discredits our lived experiences, reinforces systems of oppression, and undermines the leadership for which we were ostensibly hired.
Not to mention — it’s exhausting. Asking women of color to lead while fighting to lead isn’t right. It also isn’t sustainable or effective.
But perhaps the most tragic outcome is that organizations miss out on the ingenuity, brilliance, and transformational vision that women of color can bring to their work. And in doing so, organizations fail to serve women of color in their own audiences, whether they’re promoting careers in science, selling the latest fashions, or helping people register to vote.
If organizations are truly committed to ceding power to women of color, they must work to create the conditions that will allow women of color to transform those institutions. Here are a few ways organizations bringing a woman of color into leadership should ensure they are committed to their success and not tokenizing:
Assess how ready an organization is for change. If an organization truly wants a woman of color to lead, it should make sure the people in that organization are ready to follow. This not only includes staff, but board members, major donors, and partners. How willing are they to see the organization evolve and how will they commit themselves to ushering this change? When resistance to change arises (it will), how will they work to break it down and not leave all of that labor up to the woman of color leader?
Analyze where and how decisions are made. A woman of color may appear at the top of an organizational chart, but if the real decision-making occurs in non-transparent ways by white stakeholders, a new leader will never be fully empowered. Perhaps it’s a particularly vocal board member, a major funder, or a long-time consultant who really calls the shots. Analyze the process around recent major organizational decisions to uncover where the hidden centers of power exist and start to dismantle them.
Unpack how white supremacy manifests in your organizational culture. Leadership rules are often unwritten and women of color struggle with imposter syndrome as they deal with the disconnect between how they lead and the expectations we have for “leadership” in dominant white cultures. Pay attention to how these unwritten rules show up: what kind of work is rewarded and lauded? When responding to a crisis, what behaviors rise to the top? Learn how an organization’s culture functions, so everyone can unlearn it.
Create an intentional support system for the leader. Cultivate a small group of stakeholders — it could be board members, partners, or peers — with enough power to assist the leader’s transition. Create a trusted space for the leader to bring concerns, seek guidance, and find support. And ensure this group includes other women of color.
Understand women of color are not a monolith. Black women, Asian-American women, Latinx women and Indigenous women all experience racism differently and bring different leadership talents (and of course, a range of experiences exists within racial groups). White supremacy culture can be perpetuated by white people and people of color alike. Before hiring a woman of color, the organization should understand why this is important. Is it just a symbolic change or is the organization seeking a deeper transformation and to what end? Ensure the leader’s unique experience and talents are valued, not simply checking a box.
I have had far too many conversations with women of color who pass up leadership positions because they know the job will be non-stop stress, from microaggressions to outright hostility, and a fear of failure bred and nurtured by a racist, patriarchal society. While I admire and respect these women for drawing their boundaries and protecting their peace, I’m saddened for the amazing talent lost and the possibility of what could have been.
Millions of women of color have incredible gifts for leadership. They can transform our organizations and indeed our world if given the opportunity to thrive.
More institutions are ready to hire us. But first they must ensure we are free to lead. Only then can we move beyond creating inclusive workplaces to living with truly liberated ones.