Challenges to Workplace Diversity

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 18, 2005

When Rockville resident Saquiba Ahmed, 38, sought a corporate job in 2000, she researched the diversity policies of several companies and networked mostly with women of color. On her rsum, she listed her fluency in the Urdu and Hindu languages and her involvement in an organization that assists Pakistani women.

But while Ahmed did not downplay her ethnic and racial background to potential employers, she was unsure how comfortable she would feel as a South Asian American in the workplace. "I was nervous about not being able to fit in because of my cultural values and the color of my skin," she recalled.

Ahmed was hired by Sodexho Inc., a food- and facilities-management services company, as a generalist in the human resources department. She's now the company's diversity coordinator. She was among the 150 attendees at a recent Women of Color Multicultural Town Hall, an all-day event held recently in downtown Washington. It was sponsored by New York-based Working Mother Media, publisher of Working Mother magazine.

The primary goal of the meeting was "to foster dialogues about issues of race and about where race and gender meet in the workplace," said Carol Evans, president and chief executive of Working Mother Media. The company has sponsored similar meetings in other cities over the past two years.

At the D.C. meeting, the challenges discussed included stereotyping by superiors, racial jokes by co-workers, the lack of mentors and sponsors, the lack of recognition for work, feelings of isolation and invisibility, and lack of opportunities for training and development.

Just 1.6 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officer and top-earner positions are held by women of color, according to a 2002 study of such positions in Fortune 500 companies that was highlighted during the meeting. Black women held 1.1 percent of those positions, Asian American women held 0.29 percent, and Latino women held 0.24 percent, according to the study, conducted by New York-based Catalyst, a research and advisory services group.

But the general tone of the participants was optimistic and pragmatic. In an instant poll conducted at the meeting, 58 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "My company is sensitive to the cultural issues facing women of color in the organization." Sixty-seven percent answered yes to the question, "Do you currently have an ongoing mentor at your place of work?" And 63 percent said their future plans were to stay with their current organization.

Panelists offered advice on succeeding in the business world that went beyond generalities such as "be the best you can be":

Find a mentor. An adviser can be your boss, a personal coach, or anyone on an executive level who is willing to meet with you and "help you navigate land mines" in the organization, said Ingrid Beckles, vice president of default asset management at Freddie Mac. Don't share too much about your job pitfalls and concerns with your mentor, said Patricia Gonzalez-Perez, executive director of Customer Response Northeast at Verizon Communications Inc. "It's not the same as sitting down with your mom or a close friend," she said.

Network as much as possible, and ask for help as you move on in your career, said Marcia R. Tuck, senior vice president and area manager at SunTrust Bank's Maryland region. She said she regrets not requesting more help in the 1970s and '80s when she joined the "white male-dominated" banking industry in the Washington area.

And don't hesitate to change jobs, said Beckles of Freddie Mac. She recalled that when she was a bank vice president around 1990, "it didn't dawn on me until I got a call from a headhunter who offered three times my salary that I was being so underpaid," she said.

Ahmed said the Multicultural Town Hall provided "food for my soul," and noted that she plans to meet regularly with the 14 women she met at an Asian Roundtable there.

"It's a great time to be a woman of color in corporate America," she said between panel discussions. "But there is still a lot of work to be done to get rid of the stereotypes and focus on our skills and abilities."

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