How Women of Color Can Drive Corporate Transformation
A new book examines the unique experiences women of color face in the workplace and offers insight on how to improve work for everyone.
Deepa Purushothaman was one of the youngest people and the first Indian American woman to make partner in Deloitte’s history. But having ascended high up the corporate ladder, she realized that her work life wasn’t working. It took conversations with more than 500 other women of color leading in the workplace to clarify her next steps and make the tough choice to leave her role. In her new book, The First, the Few, the Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America (Harper Business, 2022), she explores her own experience as a “first,” shares stories from a host of women of color about their work experiences, and provides insight and guidance on how leaders can drive equity in their organizations.
Deborah Milstein, associate editor at MIT SMR, recently spoke with Purushothaman about her book and her work. What follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
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MIT Sloan Management Review: Early in the book, you introduce the idea of airplane design as a metaphor for corporate America. Airplanes were built by men with men in mind, as any woman who’s ever struggled to lift luggage into an overhead bin can attest to. There are countless examples of how corporate structures were not built for women, let alone women of color. What does this mean for women of color today?
Deepa Purushothaman: The corporate world was initially formed by a group of White men, most of whom had stay-at-home wives and reflected a now outdated social structure. We all fit ourselves into that model, but the model doesn’t fit many people’s lives anymore. The global workforce has changed enormously along with the social structure. It’s uncommon these days to find a couple with a distinct division of labor, in which one person is working and the other stays home and raises the children.
We need to rethink how work works for everybody. Although the book is written primarily for women of color, and the stories are primarily from their perspective, the insights and perspectives are valuable for anyone. We’ve had a system where, in order to succeed, you have to give up who you are — sometimes even your beliefs, your time, your health, or your mental wellness — and the structure rewarded that approach with more promotion and more pay.
But what’s the price of this externally defined success, and will it make us happy? For most of us, no, it doesn’t, but we’ve been taught that it should and that’s what we should aspire to. Right now, a lot of people, even straight, cisgender men, are questioning whether the structure works for them — how much the time, sacrifice, and demands that are required to advance up the ladder are really worth it. Is that really how we want to work anymore, given what the past two years have uncovered for us?
It seems that the pandemic has allowed us to rediscover the most basic things about humanizing work. There’s a broader feeling now that work should not be about sacrificing who and what you are.
Even talking about how the structure doesn’t work for everyone is a very recent conversation. Do you attribute that to the pandemic or other factors?
Purushothaman: We’re in a moment where all our norms are being questioned, our beliefs are being unpacked, and the ideas of what work and success look like are shifting. COVID and the racial issues that have arisen have been really hard, but they’ve also given us an opportunity to talk about work in a new way. Between the pandemic and a heightened awareness of racism since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, employees are pushing for this shift. We’re seeing the result of employee pushback in the Great Resignation.
We need to recognize, first, that the system does have pervasive biases against many groups — women of color [WOC], among others — and the system does show up differently for different people. But as the stories in the book demonstrate, WOC are told, “No, the system is unbiased and fair and meritocratic.” That is delusional thinking and sets so many women of color up to doubt themselves, doubt their skills, doubt what’s really happening to them. The most important thing that needs to change for WOC is to recognize that, yes, something is happening differently for them, and to release themselves from the feeling of “Am I making that up?” No, you’re not making it up.
Recognizing blatant inequities in how both COVID and racism affect people differently allows us to question this structure. The more nuanced, larger structural conversation is harder for many people to talk about, especially from within the structures themselves. Choosing to exit the corporate world gave me the freedom to look at the structure from the outside, because it can be hard to decode when you’re inside it. The aim of this book is to help those who are still within the system effect change.
After advancing as far as you did at Deloitte, what made you decide to leave your position?
Purushothaman: I had an incredible career I loved. And then, at one point, it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I had a hard time leaving because I felt responsible to the women of color around me. Ultimately, I had to leave for my health, but it was really hard to give up the seat, not just because of the money and other traditional benefits, but because I felt so responsible as a “first.” We don’t often talk about or understand these unsaid pressures and feelings for “first, few, and only” WOC.
I was trying to figure out: Where do senior women of color go? What do they do? Were there different companies that would allow me to do the work I want? I started gathering women of color for dinners, and those 10 dinners across the country with about 300 WOC became the basis for the book and for nFormation, the community for WOC that I cofounded.
At these dinners, there was a kindred magic in the room, about being seen and heard, in the stories these women faced around retaliation, discrimination, microaggressions, and the weight of navigating the workplace as an “only.” It was emotional to hear them talk about things that are rarely talked about, to see their tears.
Women of color can share more of what’s happening to them at work, and all of us together can create spaces where it’s safe to share that. But it’s also about White leaders stepping in to help make real and lasting change, because if we make workplaces better for women of color, we’re going to make work better for everybody.
What do you think made these conversations so powerful? How can organizations replicate that kind of safe space?
Purushothaman: You can’t create a safe space just by saying you want it. It takes active work, and few leaders even understand what such spaces look like for women of color. Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of head count reduction, yet, as people’s focus shifted to race after George Floyd’s murder, lots of organizations were doing “soundings” for employees of color about their experiences with racism in and outside the workplace. But that can be a very confusing message for women of color: “Do I speak up honestly? Am I going on a list because I’m disgruntled?”
Agency is important here. So many WOC have been taught “Be happy with the seat you’re in” or “Be grateful.” I want to change that to “I’m choosing to be here; here’s what I bring to the table, and here’s what I need to be successful and bring all my skills to bear.” I’m not saying it’s easy, but finding our agency, finding our voice, and leading with it is how we actually influence and change cultures.
Women of color are stepping into this window that we have right now. It feels like people are listening to us, that there’s an understanding that our situation is different, and that we may have the answers that a lot of companies and leaders are looking for.
If you could encourage White managers to read this book, what would you tell them they can expect to learn from it, and what most urgently needs their attention?
Purushothaman: First, the book shares the experiences of women of color — and the opportunities and the challenges they face — in their own words. They’ll be able to see how code-switching and navigating bias make the work experience harder for women of color. Leaders may gain some appreciation for ways that they can help or at least not make it more difficult.
The second thing they’ll learn is that it’s not just upon us, women of color, to fix it. We didn’t create this system, and we can’t do all the work to fix it; it’s everyone’s work. It can be a collective effort. Not all White leaders know yet what their efforts should be and what they can contribute, but there are roles for all of us. If you see something problematic, don’t be a bystander; it’s your work to speak up and intervene. For example, if someone is being spoken over in a meeting, find ways to help them be heard.
What is the best way to respond in those moments of someone being spoken over or subject to a microaggression? I was struck by your analysis of Kamala Harris at the vice presidential debate being interrupted and saying, “I’m speaking,” noting how much she must have rehearsed to get the phrasing and tone and facial expression precisely right.
Purushothaman: I actually did a TEDx talk on it and started with exactly that — “I’m speaking” — because that phrase underlies so much for women of color. We’re speaking — what we’re really feeling, what we have to signal in these systems, and how we have to manage it all.
Responding to microaggressions in the moment is really about practicing. I encourage people to practice in advance, because otherwise — I did this myself, too — you freeze like a deer in the headlights and then beat yourself up for not saying the right thing.
There’s such power in having a couple of canned phrases ready when someone says something inappropriate. It could be, “That just didn’t work for me,” or, “You need to try to be better,” or “This is why that comment is racist.” Practice what you’d say. Write it out five times.
Responding is a delicate balance to negotiate. How do you respond in the moment so that people can take in what you’re saying? Pushing back and speaking up is taking care of yourself, but in some instances that may mean escalating your concern and finding help within the organization to address it more deliberately. If we can protect and take care of ourselves and also change how others are treated in the workplace, that to me is a win-win.