There Is No Ceiling Until There Is One: An Inconvenient Conversation

I fully believe that the most effective way to break through barriers is to thoroughly understand the constraints. What exactly is holding back the minority population from landing positions of upper management?
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More often than not, when I hear stories related to Wellesley College they are about students winning prestigious awards or alumnae successes in the White House, investment banks and white shoe law firms.

As an undergraduate at the school, I heard about glass ceilings. The conversations didn't register past the fringes of my mind, however. It was academic theory about other... weaker women. Not me.

I graduated early from Wellesley, with a major in economics and a minor in philosophy. Then I took a job as a financial analyst in a well-known, international firm. I was on my way to a "healthy, Wellesley and wise" six-figure future steered by early conceptions of professionalism, shaped by my traditional parents' Asian guidance:

If you are not succeeding, it is because you are not working hard enough. Focus on pure performance, not cronyism. Socializing is a waste of time.

Thus, I maintained a strict boundary between my private life and professional work. Not only did I unknowingly hurt my career within the firm by doing so, I even applauded myself for high moral character -- I would reach the top of the corporate ladder on meritocracy alone.

Based on experience and the reading of many Harvard Business Review articles, I now realize the invaluable skill of networking. That is, fostering a positive culture of interpersonal relationships built on a foundation of solid work. Focusing on one or the other does not work.

Jenny Juarez, Dartmouth '12 was brought up in a high-achieving Mexican family with values similar to the ones my parents instilled in me. She understands the challenges of being a balanced employee, "It's so important to be outgoing in the workplace but for someone like me who strives for efficiency and has limited social experience at work, this is a daunting task. It's hard to relate to co-workers when you are in work-mode and itching to get back to work but trying not to be that person that only talks about ways to make the workplace more efficient."

Hermann Mazard is the son of Haitian immigrants, and a graduate of Dartmouth College as well as the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University. "I definitely think our immigrant values have worked against us," he states. "In Haiti, prosperity was based on merit but that doesn't translate well in America. Here, everything is based on relationships, who you know as well as who knows you. Merit is still important, but it's not the most important factor."

Jackie Modeste is an Afro-Latina who holds a masters degree from Columbia and a PhD from William and Mary. Her consulting firm, The Global Roundhouse partners with Jazzmobile to offer executive training in management for corporate executives. She says:

"Learning about social environments and learning how to work in them via practical/actual experience are very different things. School had sequestered me and had disconnected me from the practical experience that makes good executives. I had all the "right" answers but all the "wrong" implementations. I wasn't convincing as a leader because my team did not trust that I could relate to their work and responsibilities."

I neither share these stories to preach nor position minorities as victims. I wrote it because it's a difficult, often neglected topic that needs to be addressed if corporate American is serious about diversifying its workforce and minorities want to overcome cultural bias. Education needs to happen on both sides.

This conversation will be painful for otherwise high-performing minority graduates because it's frustrating and confusing why academic excellence does not directly correlate to professional achievement. Furthermore, people in this group typically avoid admitting that they need guidance not easily found in books. They often suffer in silence, as I did, because they don't know where to turn to for help.

Still others will not realize there is a problem until it is too late.

I dismissed the concept of a glass ceiling before I even had a job to give the term a definitive context.

There's No Ceiling Until There Is One.


I fully believe that the most effective way to break through barriers is to thoroughly understand the constraints. What exactly is holding back the minority population from landing positions of upper management?

CNN Money asks, "Is there a 'bamboo ceiling' at U.S. Companies?" quoting Michael Hyter's explanation of the "real cultural disconnect" between his American and Asian clients.

"Americans are taught to show leadership potential by being gregarious, outgoing, outspoken, and confident, but the Asian ideal is to work very hard, be humble and deferential, and blend in with the group. Expressing opinions or proposing changes is often seen [in Asia] as disrespectful."

The Center for Work-Life Policy published a study in July that reported approximately 5 percent of U.S. residents identify as Asian, but Asian Americans hold fewer than 2 percent of executive jobs at Fortune 500 companies. However,

"Sixteen percent of all Ivy League college grads identify as Asian or Asian American (over three times the group's representation in the population overall), and more than one-third (35 percent) of students at top schools like M.I.T. and Stanford identify as Asian or Asian American."

Even with my newfound awareness, I admit that I still feel discomfort in the office. I have to continually remind myself to humanize my emails. Personalize my messages to connect with my staff when my gut instinct is to send more efficient one sentence missives. In the long term, it makes me more effective as a manager.

As a Latina and career coach with an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, Melissa Llarena stresses the value of diversity:

"Latinos and people of color will bring a difference of opinion and ways of doing things to organizations. It's part of our strength. Companies that rely upon and value innovation thrive when different ideas are put together in unique ways. However, the key to a person of color's success in corporate America is awareness of their differences in mindset from the majority's ways of thinking. We need to know them early on in our career so that they do not become our Achilles' heels and ultimately stifle progression into decision-making roles."

My intern, Lancel Joseph, is a senior at Dartmouth College. He has a much broader perspective on cultural bias than most students because of his background and work globally:

Being Caribbean born and raised, my upbringings closely resemble those of the stoic stereotypes associated with non-American households. I was taught that nothing would ever be handed to me in life, but after years of being force-fed that hard work underpins success, this portion of my upbringing proved to be null and void upon my acceptance into Dartmouth College. My lifetime of easy academic successes halted when I encountered the dissimilar pedagogy of this prestigious Ivy League institution...

Through this undeniably challenging period in my life, I decided to chart a course in which I would completely extricate myself from any familiar environment and hone my skills to become a better student, a better Black male, a better me. International experiences including India, Poland, Kosovo and Argentina all posed threats to my mere existence and what I had previously considered to be my successes. No Indian cared about my year of biomedical research, no Argentine cared about my Commonwealth Essay Awards and the Polish nor Kosovo-Albanians were interested in my posits of being disaffiliated with the stereotypes of Africa and Black America. I entered these countries as an empty, naked, Black male. These renaissance periods in my life illuminated the misconception that academic achievements define us all as individuals. The incredulous A's I received did not help with my adaptability to these very different societies, nor did the B's and C's hinder the shedding of my once diffident exterior and acknowledging the fact that I did indeed have to expand my consciousness through awareness in order to survive.

Being stretched beyond my comfort zone lends me the necessary skills I believe are key to survival in competitively intense work and social spaces.... That A in an Economics or Egyptian History course may or may not help you close on an account or painlessly surpass time with colleagues during an airport layover but learning how to effectively interact with people will easily translate into a successful pitch and ultimately working your way up the corporate ladder.

It's so important to start these conversations early. The earlier we can prepare our students to face these types of challenges before they enter the workplace, the quicker they will be able to be thoroughly successful, and add momentum towards the bigger goal of diversity.

Lisa Chau
is a graduate of Hunter High School, Wellesley College (AB) and Dartmouth College (MA). She currently serves as an Assistant Director of Affiliated & Shared Interest Groups at Dartmouth College. She has written about professional development, social media and leadership for U.S. News and Forbes.

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