Beyond Diversity: How to Make Room at the Top for Women of Color

Blog | Career Tips | Leadership Development | Rise and Lead Women
July 20, 2020
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“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
– Verna Myers, Diversity Advocate

An organization may be diverse with representations from different groups in the society, but that does not automatically mean that it’s inclusive. If representation does not equate to voices being shared, listened to and amplified, if it does not translate to talents and skills being honed, acknowledged, and recognized, regardless of race, age, gender, disability, religious and cultural beliefs and sexual orientation, then Diversity is pointless. That’s a zero in the ‘Inclusion’ department. Diversity alone does not drive inclusion. It may be a good start, but we have to go way above and beyond it, more particularly as far as women of color are concerned.

According to, white women hold 32.5% of all management positions, compared to only 3.8% for black women in the United States. 

Meanwhile in Europe, in the UK in particular, The Financial Times Stock Exchange Group (FTSE) disclosed in a report that the 300 chair, chief executive and chief financial positions in the FTSE 100 were almost 99% white: 271 white men, 25 white women, 4 Asians and no black men or women. How these dismal figures are possible in a city where 40% of the population is non-white is beyond comprehension.  

Somebody once said that Diversity is the mix, while Inclusion is getting the mix to work well together. So true! But if we may add something to that, we’d also like to say that inclusion is not only about getting the mix to work well together but, most importantly, getting representatives from the mix to lead and influence; to have a seat at the table where everyone is not just represented, but also given a chance to lead the conversation. But how do we make that happen? How do we have a seat at the table as women of color?  

We explored this issue in the Rise and Lead “Beyond Diversity Live Show“. The intention is to provide valuable insight into how to end the suffering of women in color from both racial and gender bias at the workplace. We gathered women of color who are corporate leaders and top minds in Diversity and Inclusion to discuss the issue and to share their experience of getting a seat at the table. 

The show was hosted by Ebere Akadiri, Founder and CEO of Rise and Lead Women. Joining her as panelists were:

  • Emily Craig Graham: Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at FleishmanHillard, USA
  • Felizitas Lichtenberg: Global Diversity & Inclusion Lead in Telecommunications, UK
  • Lencola Sullivan – Verseveldt: D & I Facilitator and Office Manager Tax at Shell, The Hague, the Netherlands

Everybody can agree that more and more women of color are getting into the workforce now than ever before, bringing ambition, talents, skills, knowledge and diverse experiences with them. They offer organizations powerful insights and innovative ideas for progress and success. Yet, despite the value that women of color bring, they’re rarely given leadership positions and they’re rarely included in conversations that matter. How do we reverse this situation?

Felizitas Lichtenberg put a real emphasis on having visible role models. Often, until people see people that look like them doing well, it’s hard for them to believe that they can. Furthermore, if you are the role model, take your leadership impact in the spotlight and empower more women of color.   

On the other hand, Lencola Sullivan – Verseveldt highlighted that while it’s important to have role models and sponsors, it’s of equal significance, if not more, to speak up for yourself especially if you don’t have somebody speaking up for you. 

She said, “We should not wait for somebody to say, “Hey, you! That’s great!” No. We have to step up. Not always will we get there but we have to step up when we do see something. Sometimes when we are called upon to do things, we don’t step up because we think there are no role models. Therefore we cannot. That does stop us by not having the role models, but sometimes we need to be that one (the role model). “

We can’t agree more! Choose to make yourself matter. If there’s a leadership position that you think you’re qualified to fill, volunteer to fill the void even if you have not been initially considered. Speak up for yourself! Easier said than done, but not impossible.

Let’s face it; speaking up is never easy. Joining in on a serious conversation at your workplace or sharing or voicing your opinion on something is a big leap. But speak up no matter what because nobody knows you and your story better than you. 

Emily Craig Graham said something exciting: 

“We must, as black women, women of color, women of mixed race, recognize that we have a job to do once we achieve any position and that includes, and not limited to, pulling women alongside us and develop them over time, counsel them on what using your voice means, what that looks like. Highlight their experience, and ensure that they are heard in the closed-door discussions they are not in.” 

It’s a fact that when women champion each other, they rise and lead together. When we celebrate and encourage others for their strengths,  it’s natural for the recipients to want to rise to the occasion and show and do their best. 

Gail Blanke, the President and CEO of Lifedesigns, once said this: “Don’t just stand for the success of other women — insist on it”. 

If you’re a woman of color and are still looking for a room at the top or haven’t secured a seat at the table yet, the odds may be against you, but there a few things that can be done now for you or for the women you advocate for to not only have a seat at the table but to own it as well:

  1. Know your worth; know your value.
  2. Speak up to get that seat at the table because if you don’t, other people may not even know you want it. 
  3. Dare to dream but also equip yourself with the necessary skills and knowledge to not only survive, but to thrive and be one of the best in your industry.
  4. Find yourself a champion who is vested in your growth; someone who inspires you and understands your drive for success, and someone who can connect you to resources you need and the opportunities you deserve.
  5. If you already have the opportunity to be in a leadership role, be a role model for others; be an inspiration. Most of all, help other women of color get ahead by empowering them and bringing them along on the journey. Become not just a mentor, but a willing sponsor. Take a woman under your wing, help her develop her potential to rise to the top.
  6. If you’re a white woman, be an open ally and a proud advocate. Stand up for women of color in public and not just in whispers and secrecy. Amplify their voices by being their voice so that they can be heard and understood loud and clear. We are all in this together.

There’s still a lot more work to do as far as ‘Inclusion’ is concerned, but we can’t stop now. Let’s continue working on it and insist that women of color be assigned a room at the top or be given a good seat at the table. 

This is the 3rd of the 3 part series of Rise and Lead Beyond Diversity Live Series to learn how to navigate the conversation around race and equity at work.
Check out Part 1 here.
Check out Part 2 here


Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri is an accomplished entrepreneur and an advocate for women in leadership. Her passion to inspire others to achieve their goals drove her to found Rise and Lead Women along with her co-founder, Poonam Barua. Their mission is to inspire women to take the lead in closing the gender gap in workplaces and in business.

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