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The first, the few, the only.

That’s the phrase consultant Deepa Purushothaman uses to describe the situation that so many women of colour face in organizations. It also at one time described her: She was a senior partner at Deloitte – one of the youngest and the first Indian woman – where she focused on women’s leadership and inclusion strategies.

“Women of colour get pushed and pulled at each step on the corporate ladder,” she notes in her book The First, the Few, the Only.

At the entry level, they have to learn how to fit in and adapt to their job and the company, dealing with not always having the power to make their voices heard. At mid-level, they want to grow and make a difference, but can become jaded by the lack of change they want to inspire. Those, like her, who make it to the senior level are, she says, often the loneliest in the company, deeply embedded in the hierarchy and status quo, with the most pressure to conform. “Power, as it has been defined to date, has never included WOC,” she writes of women of colour.

Now heading her own firm offering leadership coaching and placement to women of colour, after studying structural racism at Harvard University, she says one of the biggest issues she hears repeatedly is that these women feel invisible. Growing up, they had to struggle to search for products for their hair and skin tones. Now they fail to see themselves represented in the media. If they close their eyes and imagine what an executive looks like, it is unlikely to be a person of colour or woman – much less both. They feel they don’t belong. “That feeling runs deep and causes confusion, pain and shame,” Ms. Purushothaman says.

She recalls her first client meeting after making partner at Deloitte, trying to indicate she was in charge but her eyes firmly fixed on her shoes, her ability to make eye contact having vanished. Imposter syndrome had enveloped her. The message she had received over the years was leadership is Western and white equals success. So how could it be her?

The women she counsels struggle to be a model minority. They count the number of times they speak in a meeting, for example, to make sure they aren’t slotted into the quiet and reserved stereotype.

She urges women of colour to shed the notions of who you feel you must be to fit in. Those come from family, society and the structures you inhabit.

Also, watch the “code switching,” or adapting, you feel forced to adopt. Because white people are dominant in corporations, most women of culture spend significant time and energy adjusting, from how they talk to how they dress, how they stand, and how they network or otherwise present themselves. “We don’t always talk of about the toll of code switching,” she observes.

Ms. Purushothaman urges you to look at “the job within a job” – the extra tasks that women of colour often feel compelled to take on:

  • The representative: You represent an entire race or culture within your organization given you are the first or the only.
  • The balloon popper: You’re always looking for things to fix or set right. When something difficult or awkward needs to be said, it falls to you to serve as truth teller.
  • The seed sower: Your focus is solely to the “first” to get a seat at the table, where you can plant seeds to help others down the road by your conduct and policies you help shape.
  • The sage: You are the women of colour to whom employees and sometimes human resource officials go unofficially for advice on advancement, race and diversity matters.
  • The inclusion leader: You are given a formal role to represent inclusion matters for your department or the company as a whole. You’re compensated for that work but not sufficiently as usually women in such roles are doing work beyond what they were hired to do.

“How we use our voices to amplify issues around social justice and inequality may become even more important than the jobs we have,” she adds.

Quick hits

  • Here are three things you must let go, according to executive coach Dan Rockwell: Waiting for the perfect moment, thinking you’re always right, and focusing on what can’t be done.
  • It’s time to leave your job if it’s causing you to develop bad habits, advises financial executive John Coleman. This could easily happen in a toxic atmosphere, where inappropriate or unethical behaviour is common, and you catch yourself sliding into questionable behaviour.
  • Looking at how to overcome the limitations of e-mail for establishing rapport, a team of academics experimented with having one group hold a brief personal telephone call before beginning e-mail negotiations while the other team leaped right into the negotiations. The economic and social results were better with the brief chats, leading to the conclusion: Schmooze or lose.
  • It’s uncomfortable to sit on an actual fence, notes entrepreneur Seth Godin, and similarly wasteful to do so on a metaphorical one, wasting far more time and emotion than you would expend committing to something.
  • If you need to gather bits from all over a Microsoft Word document for pasting together elsewhere, use “the spike,” which is named after an old-fashioned paper holder onto which people poked papers as they were done with them. Select the first bit of text, press Ctrl+F3, and after it disappears select the next pieces of text, similarly. Finally, place the cursor in the desired position for the paste and press Ctrl+Shift+F3.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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