Q&A with Dr. Sheila Robinson, Publisher and CEO of Diversity Woman Media
To celebrate Black History month, the Paradigm for Parity® coalition is recognizing trailblazers who have been leaders working for gender and racial parity both in society and within their own organizations.
This month, we spoke with the Publisher and CEO of Diversity Woman Media, Dr. Sheila Robinson. Dr. Robinson is a former corporate executive turned successful entrepreneur and media executive who has a keen understanding of how gender and race interplay in the workplace. She uses her media platform to advocate for, lift up and advise women of color to help them succeed in the corporate world. Dr. Robinson also serves as a member of the Paradigm for Parity® coalition steering committee.
What do you think that companies can do to elevate Black women in the workplace?
Dr. Sheila Robinson: First and foremost, companies need to eliminate inequalities. When we talk about gender bias, unfortunately, the image that enters most people’s minds is white women, despite the significant inequalities that Black women face. Organizations can address this by establishing programs that help underserved employees succeed and give those who lack certain skills the opportunity to get them. One way to do this is to give black women P&L responsibilities. Statistically, African American women are not in these types of operational roles. Unfortunately, P&L experience is oftentimes a necessary prerequisite for C-suite leadership roles and boards. Companies should proactively find ways for Black women to get into P&L positions and to strengthen their understanding of this critical business function.
Importantly, companies should seek to learn from the experiences and successes of other companies that are working to close the gender gap. One step a company can take is to join theParadigm for Parity®coalition. Coalition membership provides companies access to the experiences of others and solutions to level the playing field, like unconscious bias training and sponsorship programs.
When you look at the Paradigm for Parity® Coalition 5-Point Action Plan, is there a particular step that you think companies must do to ensure women of color have the same chance to move up as their colleagues?
Dr. Sheila Robison: I think ensuring women of color have a sponsor is key because an organization cannot achieve equality without leaders who are committed to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. Sponsors are advocates that have a seat at the leadership table and can create visibility for women of color, directly impacting where they level up.
When I worked in corporate America, I had a sponsor — who was white and male — and he told me that he regularly mentioned my name in meetings with the high-level executives who were responsible for promoting and giving out raises and bonuses. He was creating visibility for me and helping make the case for why I deserved the raise or promotion. All women, but particularly women of color, need someone at the senior level that can advocate and be a voice for them when no one else can.
What changes can companies make to eliminate or minimize unconscious bias?
Dr. Sheila Robinson: First of all, I believe companies need programs that create awareness that unconscious bias exists, without creating divisions. Unconscious bias training is one way to create awareness. Ultimately, you want people in the workplace to understand that they may have biases that they aren’t even aware of and acknowledge that addressing these biases is good for everyone in an organization.
Second of all, we all need to work to eliminate our fears. For instance, I have a big fear of flying. I remember the first time I saw a female pilot as I was boarding my flight. My first reaction was fear; I wasn’t used to seeing a female pilot. I’d grown accustomed to seeing white men fill that role. I had to acknowledge my own bias and eliminate my fear. It’s important to realize that everyone — even myself, a person who has devoted her career to the advancement of all women — have unconscious biases that we need to work through to foster a more inclusive workforce.
People tend to think things like: “if she gets my job, I lose mine.” And that is not the case. When we have inclusive engaging organizations, we grow. We grow our organizations, we grow our products and services, and we grow our talent. Diversity and inclusion is not a movement to take away jobs. It’s a movement to add jobs.
Women of color often face additional barriers in the workplace. Is there a moment where you had to deal with additional adversity, if so, how did you overcome it?
Dr. Sheila Robinson: I came up at a time in corporate America when there were no diversity and inclusion initiatives in place and I faced more than just adversity, I faced downright discrimination. What I did personally is turned adversity into opportunity. By doing my work and being the best, I was able to create visibility for my work and secure sponsors — people that have access to the rooms; that saw my value as an individual and the value in the work that I do.
Was there a pivotal moment in your own career that helped you achieve the success you’ve had?
Dr. Sheila Robinson: I am very inspired and moved by women who have served as role models for me. One of them is my mother, another is Dr. Johnnetta Cole, who is my godmother. Others include Dr. Maya Angelou, Dr. Dorothy Height and Dr. Julianne Malveaux.
2008, when the economy crashed, was one of the most difficult years for me as an entrepreneur. I’ll never forget when my phone rang that year and it was Dr. Maya Angelou’s office. They were calling to tell me that she had agreed to be on the cover of my publication. That was a pivotal moment for me, because it showed me that someone of that stature had value for the work that I was doing, and that it was worth continuing.
Can you share one piece of advice that you’ve received that really stuck with you?
Dr. Sheila Robinson: A white male supervisor told me to always differentiate myself and set myself apart from others. This advice has served me well not only in my career, but as an entrepreneur, and especially when I am coaching and mentoring other women. It impressed upon me the importance of brand visibility and personal marketing.
What advice do you have for young black women entering the workforce?
Dr. Sheila Robinson: My number one piece of advice for Black women entering the workforce is that preparation is key. Do not wait until you get into the workplace to decide what you’re going to do and what you want.
Begin building your strategic network. Start getting mentors and sponsors and look for professional organizations that you can join to broaden your professional network.
Work on your brand building and visibility. But make sure who you are on your social networks represents the brand and the person that you want to reflect.
Work to build key leadership traits, such as confidence. It’s important to work on being more confident, more assertive and exercise emotional intelligence. These are critical traits for executives that women, especially African American women, must possess to help them in their career journey.