Psychologist Lubna Somjee opened the second annual Concrete Ceiling: Challenges Women of Color Face in the Workplace event to a packed room by saying, “If we sit together every day and we discuss this issue every day and we sit with our discomfort every day, and if we really listen and hear each other, then together we can learn. Together we can grow. And together we can become more powerful in addressing these issues. Because the reality is that change doesn’t happen without discomfort.”
The event was hosted by the Women’s Leadership Alliance (WLA) of the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce and was again sponsored by the Omega Women’s Leadership Center (OWLC). The OWLC sponsored the event because it's "only by bringing the invisible and shadow labor of women of color into the light can we challenge, address, and remove those barriers," as former OWLC director Michelle Rivera-Clonch said. The panel's goal was just that, to create conversations that spread beyond the event, and beyond the workplace.
Panelists discussed the realities and "double jeopardy" that women of color encounter in the workplace. It also discussed the importance of mentors, bringing your whole self to work, listening honestly to each other, and the compounded barriers that women of color have, which include racism, lack of mentorship, role models and platforms to showcase their skills, as well as exclusion from informal networks.
What Is the Concrete Ceiling?
Many people have heard about the glass ceiling that women encounter in many fields. The concrete ceiling describes the unique, compounded barriers that women of color face. To walk through the analogy, glass is a very real barrier, preventing people from breaking through without a lot of work and effort. Now think about concrete. Not only is it much tougher to break than glass, it's also impossible to see through. That is the similar position of women of color at work. They have to work harder than women and men as a whole to accomplish the same thing, and they have very few role models to look up to on their journey.
Women of Color and Intersectionality
Pashmina Rashad, a therapist in private practice, described women of color as the “poster children of intersectionality.” Mecca E. Santana, Vice-President of Diversity and Community Relations for Westchester Medical Center, expanded that description, describing “a lack of acknowledgment of the intersection between race and gender. Because if you’re talking about race, we talk about men of color, and so gender gets left out. And when you’re talking about gender, usually the conversation revolves around white women, and so your race gets left out."
Santana shared the common statistic around pay inequity between men and women. It's commonly stated that women make 80 cents for every dollar that a man makes. But the pay gap isn't that simple and it varies based on geography, age, and race. Isolating race, on average, Asian women make 85% of what a white male makes, white women make 75%, African American women make 63%, Native American women make 58%, and Latinas make 54% of what a white male makes.
Changing the Status Quo
Much of the conversation among the panelists revolved around practical approaches to changing the status quo and challenging microaggressions that occur in everyday conversations, such as telling a women of color that you see her as white or asking where she is from. Microaggression refers to any subtle, and frequently unintentional or unconscious, action or comment toward a person of a marginalized group.
Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu, Assistant Commissioner of the NYS Office of Children and Family Services, shared a story of the day all her colleagues wore their college shirts to work. She proudly wore her Georgetown University gear, which prompted her colleague to say, "I knew you were smart, but not that smart." Ogundimu's response was to call out that statement through pointed humor, replying that she not only got into the school, but she was admitted early. Rashad echoed that addressing microaggressions, through humor or in other ways, is key to making people aware of their own behaviors and to question their often unconscious beliefs.
Supporting Women of Color
Panelists also echoed the importance of creating a more diverse workplace to support women of color. In order to have a more diverse workplace—or more diverse students or customers—an organization needs to have more diverse employees. If a woman of color comes to work and sees other people of color at the company, she sees that there is a future for her advancement and development.
Santana emphasized that diversity needs to be positioned in a strategic way and not as a moral issue. She says, “I’m not going to talk to you about why hiring women of color is the right thing to do, I’m going to talk to you about why not hiring women of color will not garner you the best benefit for your organization." Not only will a more diverse staff bring in more skills, but it will also lower litigation risk and a company's risk of discrimination lawsuits.
She explains that it's important to speak to the issue of diversity from a strategic standpoint, saying, "If you work in an organization with a great CEO who gets it and values your work, you’re fine. But what happens when that CEO leaves? If you haven’t embedded and institutionalized this work and connected it to the business reason for why you’re doing your work, it will not survive. It is not sustainable.”
Removing the Concrete Ceiling
The concrete ceiling won’t go away on its own. We all need to come together—as women of color and allies—to make sure that the concrete ceiling is acknowledged, addressed, and removed. What can you do? WLA suggests you ask your human resources department if they already offer, or if they can create, a mentoring program for women of color or for women. Somjee also recommends that organizations build diversity into a regularly reviewed performance metric, since "what gets measured gets done.”
At the OWLC, we're working with organizations across the region to determine the best way to support women of color. We look forward to many more conversations and solutions to come, both on the Omega campus and throughout the region.