When Intent and Action are Misaligned

“You’re exceeding expectations in this role but you’re not right for promotion to another role at this organization.”

“You’ve changed jobs a lot over the past few years so I question your loyalty/commitment.”

“You meet most of the qualifications for this job but this one that you don’t have is too important for us to be able to hire you.”

Do you see anything wrong with these statements? Taken in isolation, I don’t either. So why am I beyond tired of hearing these statements and others like them? It’s because I’m disproportionately hearing from black women working in education that these are the reasons they’re not getting hired or promoted.

As a career coach approaching the end of my second decade working in the education sector who also happens to be a black woman, you’d think I’d know the perfect way to advise them. Instead, I’m at a loss. Most of the organizations in question have, in the past few years, prioritized an internal exploration of race and equity in an effort to ensure their organizational staff better reflect the students they serve. Many of these organization’s leaders or hiring managers are the same “allies” who very willing signed Justin Cohen’s open letter declaring eagerness to right the racial injustice wrongs committed in the past.

Could it be that will isn’t aligning with action? Despite exploration of implicit racial bias as individuals and organizations, maybe too many organizations aren’t ready to step outside of their comfort zones. The statements above are certainly valid considerations for anyone making hiring decisions. Still time and time again we see decision makers hire inexperienced but perfectly pedigreed white candidates while not being willing to take the same risks on black candidates that clearly meet the basic criteria. Citing concerns about culture fit or bothered by seemingly frequent job transitions, is there actually more emphasis on maintaining the current groupthink than actually diversifying opinion, experience, and strategy?

I’m a child of the 80s who moved into the work world in the 90s. Back then, the only advice for black women about how to get ahead in their career had to do with conforming and assimilation. The millennial black women I encounter who are growing in their careers today are, by and large, not here for that. They’re proud of their experience – be it at a state college, Ivy League school, or HBCU – and their background – whether growing up impoverished in Southeast DC or affluent and financially privileged in Baldwin Hills. They’re not interested in hiding their authenticity and learning how to assimilate in order to get ahead in their careers. They, like their black male counterparts, want to be able to bring their whole selves to what they do everyday. Their frustration in 2016 is palpable as they consider the tradeoffs between authenticity and assimilation as they negotiate their career paths.

So, as I talk through career options with many of these black women I internally weep for the psychological implications of the choices they must make. Risking rejection when competing for new jobs; being afraid to leave roles in which microaggressions are the norm and being your authentic self is poo-pooed for fear of being seen as a job hopper; watching professional risks being taken on white colleagues with less experience but degrees and internships from places known for their dearth of black graduates. The wear and tear on the ego and emotions can be – must be – nothing less than devastating.

Let’s not forget the resulting impact on the lives of the students these adults are hired to serve. In schools we preach the gospel of “you can be anything you want” while it’s rare for the most well-regarded education reform schools and organizations to be led by people of color, particularly at the C-level. Once again the misalignment between will and action rears its ugly head. With any luck, the work of organizations like the Surge Fellowship and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoc) will help turn the tide toward improved opportunities for the next generation of women leaders to see a path forged for them to lead this work. After all, working in the education sector is challenging enough without also having to carry the burden of rejection and self-doubt.

Too frequent conversations with black women who suffer through this trauma often leaves me feeling helpless about what to do. I guess I’ll continue pushing the hiring managers I work with to take risks on black women, maybe reminding them of the risks that ended well with white leaders they know. I can remind them of the strong legacy of black female education leaders that goes back to Mary McLeod Bethune, Anna J, Cooper, Euphemia L. Haynes, and Septima Clark. I’ll continue to offer encouragement, support, and especially reminders for self-care to the black women I work with so they can all live their best, happiest life. And, I’ll pray for the day when people truly are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Until then, it’s imperative that we all #staywoke.

If you’re the leader of an education organization that strives for equity, here are a few suggestions that might help address the inequities described above:

  1. At the Flourish Conference for Women in Leadership last week in DC, Rachel Talton implored every woman to have a coach, a mentor, and a sponsor. Have you considered ways to ensure that each member of traditionally under-represented groups in your organization has all three? A sponsor – someone who can advocate for that person and lift up their strengths in conversations about growth opportunities can make all the difference in elevating leaders of color to grow.
  2. Board members can push for executive leadership succession planning, with a particular eye toward considering people of color as potential successors. Thoughtful succession planning can create opportunities for people of color to be exposed to the training and skill building necessary for them to be successful in their next role.
  3. Leaders can promote equitable “safe spaces” in which all employees are equipped with the tools and space to have ongoing dialogue about issues of race and equity in the workplace.
  4. Get real about the implicit bias that may have clouded your talent management judgment in the past and identifying clear strategies for future improvement.

What else would you add to this list?