How women of color can redefine power in business

Women of Color (WOC) are one of the fastest growing demographics in corporate America. Yet despite their growing presence, many still struggle to thrive in the workplace.

As the first Indian-American woman to become a partner at global services firm Deloitte, Deepa Purushothaman knows how challenging it can be for “the first, the few, and the only.”

His 20-year career at Deloitte was filled with success and feelings of isolation and exhaustion. But over time, he realized that having the unique experience and perspective of a WOC was also an invaluable source of strength and power.

“We all have power,” he told me. “Whether you’re a woman of color or you’re at the legacy point of your career, it’s a matter of believing it, finding it and dedicating yourself to it.”

Information and strategies for women of color

Today, Purushothaman serves as the co-founder of nFormation, a membership community of women of color, for women of color. And recently she wrote an excellent book, The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America. Power in Corporate America), which shares hard-won insights and strategies for WOC to navigate a rapidly changing workplace.

I spoke with Purushothaman recently on Zoom ZM,
for your advice on how WOC can move forward during this difficult time. Highlights from our conversation below:

Next Avenue: Can you clarify what you mean by ‘Women of Color’??’

Deepa Purushothaman: I have to admit that this was a dilemma for me. As an Indian woman, I struggled to know if I could use the term women of color. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that as a WOC we share many common experiences. That said, we are not a monolith, so I am careful to highlight where differences are based on race, as well as other factors, such as cultural, class, or age differences.

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See also: Yes, women of color are underfunded. Yes, it is bad for the economy. Now is the time to do something about it.

Use these three phrases

Women of color often face ‘microaggressions’: anything said or done that makes people feel like they don’t belong. What is the best way to respond to microaggressions at work?

There is a spectrum of microaggressions. Some are outright racism, while others are less harmful. And it’s not just about race. I’m sure some of your older workers have faced age-related microaggressions. The problem is that people aren’t taught how to respond effectively to microaggressions, so they can catch you off guard.

I teach WOC to have three sentences ready for when these situations arise. For example: “What you just said hurt me” or “What you just said didn’t turn out the way I think you wanted” or “Can we pause this meeting because I need five minutes? What you just said really surprised me.

Choose a phrase that resonates and rehearse it. And know that you don’t always have to react in the moment. I usually wait 10 minutes to decide if the comment still bothers me. Sometimes I ask my friends for their perspective before I answer. It is also critical that our allies in the workplace also learn to speak up in these situations; this should not be the sole responsibility of WOC.

Related: How the pandemic impacted the gender pay gap

You are a great believer in the power of community. How can WOC build its support networks?

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Many of us sit alone in our concern, whether it be age discrimination or racism. Having a community and engaging in meaningful conversations about our shared experience can make a huge difference in our lives and careers. They share a common language and understand each other in a way that other people struggle to understand. The good news is that it’s easier than ever to connect with people. So reach out to contacts on LinkedIn, old colleagues, or classmates. Do not stop. People are looking for connection, now more than ever.

Rethink expectations of additional roles

In the book, he discusses all of the additional roles WOC are often expected to play (mentors, recruiters, etc.) as one of the “first, few, or only.” Can you share some tips for handling those requests?

It’s tricky, because tasks like tutoring tend to be undervalued as much as other responsibilities. For example, at Deloitte all partners did some mentoring. But as one of the only women of color in leadership, I did more than my fair share. I loved it, because I believed that helping other women was part of my legacy. But I also had to learn to be smart about it. Over time, I had to decide which additional tasks I was excited about and which ones to turn down.

The last two years have encouraged us all to rethink how we work and the role it plays in our lives. How can we do that successfully?

We are at a time when everyone is questioning the role that work plays in their lives: What do I want? What do I think? Whats Next? Unfortunately, WOC often has worn scripts or internal dialogue that can make this process even more complicated.

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For example, my parents were immigrants who continually emphasized the importance of hard work, stability, and financial security. As a result, I believed I couldn’t walk away from a “good” job, even if I was exhausted or unhappy. Eventually, I learned to “get rid of” those messages in order to move forward in a way that reflected my values.

It helps to calm down and lean on your intuition. Think about whether or not those old scripts still work for you, and if not, what messages can replace them. I have found that writing or working with a coach is very helpful.

See also: ‘The glass ceiling is a concrete ceiling’: Women, especially women of color, remain in short supply in higher education leadership—here’s why

Finally, do you think the increased emphasis on corporate diversity and inclusion is real, or is it just window dressing?

There is a lot of showcase, but I’m still optimistic. More companies recognize that there is a problem, so that is progress. Changing culture is a big and difficult thing, it takes time.

Nancy Collamer, MS, is a semi-retirement coach, speaker, and author of “Act Two Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement.” She can now download her free “25 Ways to Help You Identify Her Second Act” workbook on her website at (and she’ll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter).

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