At my former job, I told a Human Resources representative that I was concerned about the company’s culture and it had to do with the lack of diversity and inclusion. My primary concern came from not seeing much minority representation on the executive team or the board of directors. The HR representative quickly defended the company by saying, “Women? We have plenty of women in managerial roles.” I specified by explaining that I didn’t see women of color on the executive team at all.” The look on her face made me realize how detached this company was about what their lack of diversity told me.
This company’s executive 9-member-team had one white woman, and the rest were white men. But a well-intended white woman could not represent a minority woman because she hasn’t struggled the way a minority woman has in the workforce. They don’t understand the resilience that is sometimes needed to walk into a meeting room full of white people. They don’t understand growing up as a minority. They don’t understand having to assimilate, hide your accent, and want to belong. They don’t understand allowing people to butcher your name simply because it’s polite “office etiquette” to not confront and correct someone.
Believing that all women, or any woman represents us and can mentor us based on our gender alone diminishes our chances of being seen and heard and being properly guided. When we are not being mentored by women who represent us, we can easily become invisible.
The harsh reality about corporate America is that it is still built on traditional and outdated theories that men are breadwinners and women keep house. Even more disturbing is that diversity is still rare at the top. In 2021, 90 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies were white men. In addition, the pay gap is a rat race that ultimately leaves a lot of women of color behind. If there is no diversity, there is no equality because there is no representation of the everyday struggle amongst WOC. If there is no diversity and representation, how can we feel safe, guided, and trusting of a mentor who doesn’t even understand us?
Besides us not trusting mentors who are not like us, some mentors who are not like us may not feel comfortable talking to us about things we need to work on or the feedback we need. While the #metoo movement is still exposing sexual harassment at work, and while racial tensions are high and politically correct vocabulary is constantly being re-evaluated and developed, we are very skeptical about talking to each other about things we don’t fully understand. For example, no 50+-year-old white man in a corporate office will realize what my hoops mean to me. So, in that case, a conversation about attire and presentation can quickly go astray despite the intention to mentor and guide.
But mentoring is extremely important. And mentoring with representation can make a big difference because it can impact how many WOC we see in leadership roles—women, who ultimately also become mentors. Beyond the corporate impact mentoring may have on minority women, it also grants them access to different types of problem-solving, creativity, and leadership styles. Mentoring empowers mentees, and when a mentee of color sees a mentor that looks like here, it instantly instills confidence, courage, and resilience.
Minority mentors who represent us are important because despite us having different upbringings, or educational background or even socioeconomic status, are journeys have similarities. Our fears may the same, our insecurities may be rooted in the same things. Therefore, her power, her leadership, her guidance, her success, is a direct reflection of who we can also become.