Giving and taking credit is a tough subject to speak up about. The prevailing cultural narrative around the world is to be humble, that no task is too small, and when you work hard, the satisfaction of a job well done should be reward enough. If you keep working hard, you’ll be recognized—or so the logic goes.
But women and women of color in particular are often denied the opportunity to do the work that is recognized and celebrated in an organization. Meanwhile white men largely get the advancement opportunities and credit. While a gap exists even in the recognition that white women receive compared with white men, white women are still more likely to be in high-visibility positions compared with women of color.
For people who do get credit for their brilliance, and whose social identities largely afford them opportunities to progress and prosper, there is a chance to use their privilege for good. How can they use that influence to be more inclusive toward women of color? For that, we can draw inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe.
Fitzgerald, the US jazz singer, is a global musical icon dubbed “the Queen of Jazz.” But she very nearly did not reach the celebrity status that she is now famous for. In the 1950s, Fitzgerald tried to get a booking to sing at the well-known Hollywood jazz club Mocambo (where Frank Sinatra made his Los Angeles debut in 1943), but was denied the stage. Music historians say this was likely due to a combination of her being a Black woman and because she wasn’t considered glamorous enough to perform there.
When Monroe heard about it, she personally called the owner of the club and said that she wanted Fitzgerald booked immediately, and in exchange, Monroe would appear at the front table of the club every night of her performance.
“The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it,” Fitzgerald reportedly said in an interview.
What’s significant is that Monroe did not seek to book her own performance and invite Fitzgerald onto the stage with her. She sat in the crowd, allowing Fitzgerald to shine. Monroe’s celebrity status would have overshadowed Fitzgerald and likely not have resulted in much advancement opportunity for Fitzgerald. Instead, Monroe used her influence to advocate for Fitzgerald alone to prosper. She made room and then got out of the way.
Below are some ways that you can do the same.
If you’re a manager who leads many meetings, there’s ample opportunity for you to be inclusive on purpose. The first step is to take stock of who usually leads meetings, who gets to present at them, and who is celebrated as innovative and productive during them. In most cases, this is a white person. Being inclusive on purpose requires leaders to seek opportunities to create room for women of color.
Designate a facilitator for every meeting, ideally the leader, who ensures that everyone has equal speaking time. Research shows that men speak more frequently and for longer durations in meetings than women. Women—of all races and ethnicities—are also more likely to be interrupted than men, even in online meetings. This is even true in the highest offices, such as when female US Supreme Court justices are likely to be interrupted at more than twice the rate of their male counterparts.
So interrupt the interrupters.
What’s fascinating is that the first few times that people do this—awkward as it may be—the dynamics of meetings start to shift and soon it becomes the norm to wait your turn to speak. The opposite, interruptions normalize interruptions, is also true.
Many women can attest that often when they state an idea, it’s ignored, but when a man repeats it, it’s revered and applauded. When it happens in corporate spaces, the astronomer and professor Nicole Gugliucci calls it “hepeating.” Meritocracy convinces us that like cream, brilliance rises to the top. But in reality, it depends on who delivers the message. The phenomenon of hepeating shows us that men are frequently viewed as brilliant and leader-like—the ones with the good ideas, while women supposedly don’t have good ideas.
Women of color experience an even more acute form of invisibility. They often find that their ideas aren’t heard until they’re repeated by a man or white person. If you find that you don’t have trouble getting attention in meetings, but the woman of color next to you does, you can repeat the idea (even if you don’t identify as a man), credit her and then get out of the way.
Become aware of who is considered a visionary and who is seen as a follower. Once you intentionally observe, you will notice that it’s largely white people and men who are given the floor to air ideas or ask questions.
Whenever possible, call on women of color in meetings or other settings to share their ideas, especially if you are facilitating the gathering. Avoid tokenizing behavior, however, or just taking this action as a symbolic gesture to signal that you’re including women of color in the moment. You also need to engage with the ideas that women of color share and create opportunities for them to put their ideas into action beyond the meeting.
Yamiche Alcindor, the US White House correspondent for PBS News, has often been at the receiving end of racism and sexism as a Black woman covering the Donald Trump-led US presidential administration. On Aug. 4, 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to let Alcindor ask a question. Seeing this, a Boston Globe reporter who was present, Jess Bidgood, raised her hand to ask a question, and when summoned, passed her turn over to Alcindor to let her ask the press secretary her question. Bidgood realized that her own privilege as a white woman would likely ensure that she was called on by the white woman onstage. So she used her position to get the mic and then passed it on to a woman of color.
When we address these exclusionary behaviors intentionally, we can create a workplace environment that includes women of color.
The existing research shows that high-visibility projects disproportionately are led and staffed by men. A Catalyst study (pdf) on projects assigned to high-potential employees found that men’s projects had double the budget and triple the head count compared with projects led by women. Just 22% of the women’s project budgets exceeded $10 million, compared with 30% of the men’s. Most troubling of all, one-third of men reported that their assignments got significant attention from the C-suite compared with only a quarter of women. No comparable research has been done specifically on women of color and critical assignments, but we know that women of color face a concrete ceiling to leadership, likely exacerbated by a lack of opportunity to fully demonstrate their capabilities.
Recommend women of color for high-visibility assignments and roles. Take the time to cultivate relationships with various high-potential employees in your organization, not just the ones who are the same race or gender as you, particularly if you identify as white and male. Gauge the career ambitions of these employees so that when it’s time to make decisions on how to staff these projects or roles, you will have a diverse array of names. Then intentionally recommend women of color with the same vigor that you would a protégé with the same social identities as you.
Office housework refers to routine administrative tasks that keep an organization running smoothly. Short of hiring someone dedicated to helping order lunches, taking meeting notes, smoothing over client miscommunications, or serving on committees that don’t advance one’s career, there’s only one way to ensure that women of color don’t get burdened with this work.
Audit who does the office housework today in your workplace and then equitably redistribute it. Measure what work in your workplace has to be done for things to run smoothly—from taking meeting notes, organizing birthday/retirement celebrations, ordering lunches, and serving on committees. Where possible, create a rotating system so that different people are responsible for these tasks and it doesn’t default to women of color.
Be intentional. Where tasks can’t be easily rotated, such as mentoring a junior employee for a longer period of time, find ways to recognize the employee taking on this task, particularly in performance reviews and even with financial compensation.
Adapted and excerpted from Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work by Ruchika Tulshyan. Reprinted with permission from the MIT Press. Copyright 2022.
Ruchika Tulshyan is an award-winning inclusion strategist, CEO of Candour and author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work (MIT Press).