One in five Americans is a woman of color, and women of color will be the majority of all women in America by 2060, according to Catalyst. These demographic changes alone will not automatically alter leadership representation, where currently only 4% of C-suite leaders are women of color. “We need to expand our impressions of what a leader is supposed to look like to allow more types of leadership to be valued and promoted,” says Deepa Purushothaman, author of The first, the few, the only: how women of color can redefine power in corporate America. “If you want to support women of color, you have to let us lead our way.”
I spoke to Purushothaman – who was also the first Indian woman to become a partner at Deloitte, and who is now co-founder of nFormation, a professional space for women of color – about her new book, and how to redefine leadership to be more understood. She notes that she uses “women of color” out of solidarity, but it’s not a monolith, as the term encompasses different cultures, identities, and experiences. Here’s her advice after surveying more than 500 women of color about their workplace leadership experiences.
On impostor syndrome…
“I wrote a mantra, ‘You don’t have to see it to be it’, which is the opposite of what we say to most people. I had to do it because, if I didn’t didn’t, impostor syndrome would set in. The biggest challenge of not seeing yourself represented is that you start questioning yourself and wondering who and what you are. small, trying to fit in because the others [in the room] look different from you. You may end up cutting out your voice.
Systems appear differently to different people. My big message is that corporate America is not a meritocracy. Why is it so wrong to talk about it? My experience is different as a woman of color. Imposter syndrome occurs when you don’t see yourself represented in structures and you don’t receive the same treatment, opportunities, or access as others. We receive hidden and overt signals that we don’t belong. It can lead us to think that we could have done better or done more. We end up overworking ourselves. What happens with “impostor syndrome” is that we end up believing that it is us, without realizing that the system is responsible for some of our questionings. »
To be “only”…
“[One of the interviews in the book] was with a black woman from the Midwest who was the only black woman in her entire company. She said, “I didn’t realize until I had this conversation with you that I felt like I represented my entire race.” In the book, I talk about the weight that women of color carry when they take on extra burdens or jobs outside of the jobs they are hired for. This woman said to me, ‘I’m touching up my hair. I change the way I dress. I change my way of speaking. I change what I eat and I bring for lunch. I change what I talk about. I feel so responsible. She wanted her colleagues — many of whom had never interacted with another black person — to feel good.
Part of what I want women of color to know is the difference between what’s ours and what’s not. Women and women of color take on so much, when it’s the fault of the system. There is so much power in knowing that you are not alone, knowing what is yours and giving back the rest.
By knowing your inherent worth…
“I knew I wanted to quit my job for about three years before I left. It wasn’t working for me for various reasons, but I found it hard to leave because I felt responsible. I thought, ‘As ‘first’, all eyes are on me. If I fail, what will others think? I fought so hard for the seat, and what would my departure mean for everyone? Then I got very sick and ended up in bed for eight months.
My whole identity was my work. I was at my doctor’s office for the third time with a suitcase in the corner because I was traveling for work. She said, “We can do more tests, or I can tell you what you already know: your job is killing you.” It does not promote your healing. Then she asked me three questions that changed my life: ‘Do you have to have a big job like that? What could you do other than this job? Do you consider yourself worthy without what you do?
The right question is important. I think a lot of us derive our value from our work, our advancement, the accolades, the money, and the title. Now, success for me is no longer separate from health or mental well-being. We live in a culture and a society where these two things do not go together. We have to reconnect them.
On the changing work culture…
“I ask women of color to find the power of ‘me’ and the power of ‘we.’ You have to discover for yourself what makes you feel whole, healthy, happy, powerful. It requires rewriting the narratives and sorting out our parents’ definition of success and hard work. The “we” works, it is to join a community. Once you find the “we”, you realize that you are not alone and that we are struggling with the same things. There is power in there. This is how you push on structures.
I think we need both if we really want to make changes and really understand what’s happening to us. It’s giving ourselves permission to create the world we want and the life we want. The pioneer has a cost, and we don’t talk about it. Most of women [I interviewed] were sick. There is burnout, as well as trauma for women of color in a real way. It’s about unpacking that and setting new boundaries, because more than ever we’re at a point where we’ve realized that work doesn’t work for anyone.”
On redefining leadership…
“Many of the necessary qualities that we call ‘feminine qualities’, such as empathy, have been divorced [from leadership]. A woman I interviewed who was formerly an executive at Google talked about how much she really leads with her intuition. For me, leadership should be more than your head. We see leadership as the white men who have been the role model for centuries, and our sense of who a leader is desperately needs to evolve and grow.
As women of color, we have very different lived experiences. Yet there has never been space to bring all of our stories, strengths, or lived experiences to leadership. They would be really valuable at this time, where leaders must know how to work in complexity and develop and manage diversity. We had to navigate without being seen and heard within the structures. Why are these things not evaluated in the same way? »
By changing the conversation about power…
“One of the most important messages in my book is that everything that has come before can be undone, but we have to decide to undo it. We are the ones who empower everything. If we decide these systems don’t work “No, we could recreate them. We need white male leaders to understand that we’re not trying to take anything away from them. We’re trying to have a conversation about how power was defined in the first place.” We want to redo the table, not just move what exists.
It’s so important for white men to be on board when it comes to topics of inclusion. They have to give themselves permission to be wrong and try to be brave when it comes to topics like race. It is so important that people try rather than do nothing because they are afraid of doing the wrong thing. I do not think so [the system] can be edited without them. And, by the way, work and the system don’t work for them either. I have spoken to many white men who want more flexibility and time with their family. It’s really a question of: Who are the current structures serving, and are they serving anyone? They were created generations ago. Many men have joined a faulty system, and so we have to deprogram them too. I’m not saying it’s men who are broken, it’s a system that’s broken. Once we understand this, we can all change it together. We have to find another way to have the conversation.