White Cis Het Professional Women: Let’s Lift While We Climb

You know what makes me sad?

Nine times out of 10, if a White woman invites me to a women’s empowerment event, almost all of the women there are White- even almost all the women in the photos in the marketing materials are White.

I find it very odd that my White women friends don’t notice this.

But to them, it’s normal.

This week I hosted a women’s networking event in San Francisco, Sisterhood: Making Women’s History by Uniting ALL Women. The goal of the event was to break down barriers between women so all women can succeed.

Attendees at the March 13, 2017 Sisterhood event in San Francisco.
Attendees at the March 13, 2017 Sisterhood event in San Francisco.

The attendees and speakers were diverse across every dimension- we even had a few brave men there.

Speakers at the Sisterhood event March 13, 2017 in San Francisco.
Speakers at the Sisterhood event March 13, 2017 in San Francisco.

We listened to Kyle Graden, Margenett Moore Roberts, Fatima Mekkaoui, Daisy Auger Dominguez, and me describe our journeys and discussed questions with conversation partners.

We practiced amplifying the voices of other women by sharing the insights we learned from each other.

I originally proposed the panel to a conference for women in tech I had attended last year. Last year, the panelists talked about how to break barriers, interview well, etc. to the largely White cishet professional women audience.

I thought given the election results, especially, it was time for something new. I proposed a panel with women of color and people with non-binary gender identities providing frank feedback to White cis professional women on how to dismantle the systemic barriers-including the ones we erect and perpetuate- that impede women of color, genderqueer people, and other “outsider groups” in the workplace.

As Aubrey Blanche pointed out in a brilliant Recode post last week, How white women in tech can harness their privilege to help create diversity, White cishet professional women have room for improvement in terms of how we support other “outsider groups” at our companies.

Very high profile speakers agreed to serve on the panel.

I thought it would be a no brainer that conference organizers would want this panel!! The topic was so timely.

The White cishet professional women planning the conference promptly turned down the panel. When I saw the panels they accepted:

Breaking Barriers

Tech for Good: Design Thinking for Influence and Impact

How to Pursue a Successful Career in Leadership

It made my blood boil.

Ladies- an assimilationist mindset- that we have to learn and conform to the rules White men created to give them power over us- IS NOT GOING TO GET US ANYWHERE.

And we don’t ascend to the highest levels- only 5.8% of S&P CEOs are women, and only two of them are women of color. Shoutout to Geisha Williams, the first Latina CEO of a S&P 500 company, but with Ursula Burns and Rosalind Brewer recently stepping down there are no Black women CEOs of any S&P 500 companies, although women of color make up a third of working women in America. Men hold upwards of 70% of leadership roles at major tech companies.

Research shows that executive women are not kind to other women at work.

The film Hidden Figures depicted the all-too-common power dynamic between Black and White women in the workplace that persists to this day: the White woman supervisor refused to advocate for her Black counterpart and constantly antagonized her.

Hidden Figures also demonstrated an alternative- and much more strategic, fun, and kind- way that women can succeed in a male dominated workplace. The Black women at NASA advocated for themselves and each other- they knew they were much stronger collectively, and they genuinely liked each other and cheered each other on. They strategized about how to stay ahead of the curve and shared their knowledge and resources with other Black women so they all could benefit.

Women in the film Hidden Figures.
Women in the film Hidden Figures.

The result: Katherine Johnson earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and NASA named a building after her. Dorothy Vaughn became NACA’s first black supervisor and an expert FORTRAN programmer. Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black woman engineer.

The Lesson: when we unite, we can be more effective at changing the system so all of us can ascend.

This starts by listening, learning, and actually CHANGING.

We, my White cishet professional sisters are part of the problem. We need to change ourselves, our relationships, our sphere of influence so that ALL women can succeed. Women of color and genderqueer people have been pointing out that we need to change for a long time- but we have stubbornly refused to listen, remaining fixated on how we can contort ourselves to persuade White men to hire and promote us.

This has to stop.

I don’t like the term ‘ally’ because it implies that we are very different, I act in my self-interest and you act in your self-interest. And where those interests align I will help you.

I prefer the term “partner” because our liberation is bound up in each other’s liberation. And what we have in common is greater than what divides us. We are all women, we are all equals, we are all fighting to be heard and to have equal access in the workplace, and we are all in this together.

When we support each other, we all benefit. Each of our success is all of our success.

And it starts by simply getting to know one another. Recognizing the humanity in each other. Letting go of our belief we are superior.

Please share this post with a woman who needs to hear it, and share your thoughts on how cishet White professional women at your company or school can be better partners with all women at your company or school.

Karen Fleshman is a Racial Equity Trainer and Government Accountability Advocate. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She host events and offers online courses, webinars, talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and blogs on Huffington Post and Medium. She is a co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and often testifies to the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren