What does leadership look like in our country? What does it look like in our community?
Local nonprofit Girls For A Change knows, and they want what their name states: change. A change in perception. A change in the narrative. A change in who can be a leader.
Angela Patton, CEO of Girls For A Change, created the youth development organization with the aim of “preparing Black girls for the world and the world for Black girls.”
Why Black girls?
A recent article in The New York Times reported that Black girls are arguably the most at-risk student group in the United States. Studies found that their actions and appearance are viewed more suspiciously than their white peers. As a result, their behaviors are judged more harshly and they are often subjected to disproportionate discipline.
“There are not many spaces where Black girls are free to express their individuality and develop their gifts and talents,” states Samantha McCoy, CEO of MissionKey Communications, LLC. “Organizations like Girls For A Change provide this opportunity.”
McCoy is one of three Black female entrepreneurs investing in Girls For A Change through multiple scholarship opportunities initiated by Altimese Curry, Founder of The Ezer Agency, a communications agency helping businesses, entrepreneurs and small business owners amplify their voice.
After experiencing the financial challenges of higher education after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, Curry made the decision to help other young Black girls like herself. Last summer, she worked with Patton to launch the scholarships at Girls For A Change, which are part of the organization’s Girl Ambassador Program (GAP). GAP is designed to equip Black girls and other girls of color in high school with the tools and skills needed to help them secure professional careers.
“Girls for a Change is a safe haven for young Black girls and their dreams,” says Curry. “It’s a foundation that nurtures the ideas and hearts of one of America’s most vulnerable… young Black girls. It also gives them the confidence to live boldly in the face of adversity while honoring the feelings they have in the process.”
Candice Nicole, CEO of Candice Nicole Public Relations, agrees. As another Black business owner supporting Girls For A Change, she believes that “every organization can be intentional about partnering with those working to develop, encourage, and mentor women in leadership.”
In addition to Girls For A Change, Nicole mentions platforms like Her Agenda, Walker’s Legacy, Black Career Women’s Network, and ColorComm as just a few examples of entities who have made it their mission to identify and develop high-achieving Black women.
“As girls of color, moving through the world and most spaces is a very different experience for us in comparison to others,” says Mia Brabham, author of Note to Self, who is also investing in Girls For A Change.
“We are constantly wondering if we’re being judged for the color of our skin, we have to try harder to get further, and we juggle microaggressions [unintentional discrimination] and other obstacles – whether financially, mentally, and even physically – along the way.”
Brabham adds that Girls For A Change is helpful because it gives Black girls the opportunity to be in a space where they can learn to love themselves and be themselves.
“That’s special and very important because we know that when a girl has confidence, she can go anywhere and do anything.”
Yet Black women alone helping Black girls can only go so far.
For the systemic change that needs to be made, it must extend beyond them. All women, especially Black women and women of color, need advocacy. And it must come from the very leaders they’re aspiring to become.
In the United States, Black History Month is celebrated in February and Women’s History Month in March, which may leave you wondering, what happens the rest of the year? Activist artist group Guerrilla Girls has a response: “Discrimination.”
Statistics back up the statement. According to Catalyst, a global nonprofit working to accelerate women in leadership, the U.S. currently ranks behind Africa, Europe, and Latin America in the percentage of women in senior management. Male CEOs outnumber their female counterparts nearly 13 to 1. Women also face barriers advancing to their first management roles with race deepening the disparity. In 2019, white women held almost a third of all management positions, while women of color held much smaller shares: Latinas (4.3 percent), Black women (4.0 percent), Asian women (2.5 percent).
How do we make a change?
We decided to reach out to current leaders in our community for insight. Last year, Virginia Business released the inaugural edition of the Virginia 500: The 2020 Power List. The comprehensive guide includes the top 500 business leaders holding the most power and influence in the commonwealth. Unsurprisingly, the list is comprised of mostly white men.
As a precursor to the list, the media company makes the following statement on their website:
“Virginia Business is purposefully conscious of the need to highlight the achievements of women and ethnically diverse communities in all our listings. Still, despite the increasing diversity of Virginia’s business community, leadership and power tends to stay a step behind the changing demographics of the commonwealth. The C-suite unfortunately lags somewhat in the diversity of top leadership positions. The good news is that Virginia Business will be here to continue to document such changes.”
But here’s the thing: change cannot be documented unless actual change is made.
Again, how do we make a change?
For this story, we attempted to connect with many of the Virginia 500 leaders based in Richmond, requesting their thoughts on women in leadership, specifically Black women and women of color. We received only eight responses, and from those responses, two individuals took the opportunity to share their thoughts.
Michael Bor, CEO of CarLotz, was one of them.
“Diversity is critical at all levels of an organization for so many reasons,” states Bor, who co-founded the high growth start-up.
“We have found that having a more diverse workforce helps us to ensure our critical decisions are not blinded, or adversely guided by, subconscious biases that are not representative of the broader population. Our ability to solicit diverse perspectives on key issues ensures that the outcome is the right one for our stakeholders, teams, guests, clients, and investors.”
Bor also believes that diversity at the senior leadership level sends an important message, not just to the internal team, but to the outside world. It visibly shows that opportunities exist for everyone at their organization – regardless of gender, race, or other factors like sexual orientation and physical ability.
“This ensures that we are able to recruit and retain the best talent in the market and show them a clear path to leadership, which helps us accomplish our mission.”
Bor gets it. Not only is diversity in leadership the right thing to do – it’s good for business. He should know: for the third consecutive year, CarLotz made The Inc. 5000, the most prestigious ranking of the nation’s most successful private companies.
Paige Clay, Senior Partner with asset management firm Mercer, was the other local leader willing to share her insight.
“We need to continually focus on creating a diverse workforce with a culture of inclusivity and belonging,” states Clay. “To realize our full commitment to diversity and inclusion, we need to amplify our focus on gender, race, and ethnicity. Our commitment at Mercer is to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities in which we operate, always consistent with recruiting, retaining, and promoting the best qualified talent.”
According to Mercer’s research, only 15-20 percent of the S&P 500 companies have included Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) metrics in their executive incentive plans. Mercer believes those strategically working to develop an inclusive and equitable workforce for women, particularly women of color, must hardwire their organization. The company has published an article addressing the “Say/Do” gap, which outlines critical steps companies can take to transform words into meaningful actions. As stated in the article, “Companies have the power to make this time different. We must use it.”
Specifically, leaders of companies have the power to make a change.
People like Bor and Clay are showing that true leadership means proactively speaking out, advocating for diverse leaders, and putting in the effort to ensure it becomes a reality.
Last summer, we witnessed a national reckoning against systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. While the protests instigated long overdue conversations on racial injustice in this country, they also revealed that we’ve only begun to earnestly address topics like implicit bias, discrimination, and inequity.
Companies across the country began taking a hard look at their organizational structures, including here in Richmond, former Capital of the Confederacy. Many released statements declaring support for BLM, as well as a commitment to creating a more racially diverse workforce. But many companies have not followed through, or worse, have remained silent.
It’s in that silence that we’re coming to terms with what many have always known: that racism is a defining characteristic of America.
So too, is sexism.
If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that an incompetent, chauvinistic white man with no political qualifications can still come out on top over a vastly more qualified woman with decades of relevant leadership experience. Complicating matters is that a majority of white women helped make it happen.
In 2017, the rise of the #MeToo Movement brought awareness to the rampant sexual harassment taking place in our society – everywhere from Hollywood and Corporate America to our communities and our homes. It also shed a light on the blatant pay gap between men and women in the workforce. For Black women and women of color, the disparity is even greater, as they experience both gender and racial discrimination.
Time and time again, history has shown us a consistent narrative that’s hard to ignore: a devaluation of women.
What’s more troubling is that the devaluation is not just perpetuated by men. Many women choose to ignore, or don’t believe, that gender inequality exists. In some cases, they have relegated themselves, whether consciously or subconsciously, to second-class citizenship. This mindset may not be through any fault of their own, but rather, a byproduct of conditioning over years of living in a patriarchal society.
The term “patriarchy” is often associated with radical feminism, but its prevalence is actually quite mainstream, particularly in the United States. The definition is straightforward: “a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property.” (Wikipedia)
A quick glance at the distribution of political power and wealth in our country, as well as right here in Virginia, shows it disproportionately favors men, specifically rich white men. While the current federal government reflects more diversity than years past, in general, the U.S. is woefully behind with women in leadership.
Like race, there is an inherent bias with gender.
But while racism tends to arise outside the inner circle of Black people and people of color, sexism can occur, and often does, among a woman’s own community, colleagues – even friends and family.
The devaluation of women has become so normalized, it doesn’t even seem to phase most people that the U.S. remains one of just 28 countries worldwide that does not recognize women as equal under the law (World Economic Forum). This is a shameful truth that should anger, sadden, and humiliate all Americans – women and men alike.
Again, how do we make a change?
We reached out to additional community leaders to get their thoughts. Despite including men, all responses we received were from women or nonbinary people.
“You simply cannot instigate meaningful, measurable change if there’s zero quantitative accountability. That’s not how business works,” says Dr. Tiffany Jana, Founder & CEO of TMI Consulting, Inc. and author of multiple books, most recently, Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions.
“Folks need to let go of the polarizing political connotations and recognize that if your commitment to women in leadership and gender pay equity is sincere, then you must set quantitative goals.”
Jana suggests that companies decide on a specific percentage to increase women’s leadership opportunities, then set a designated date. The date provides an initial destination to work towards diligently and intentionally, while also holding the company accountable to its goals.
“Likewise, if your company lacks gender pay equity, decide how much less women are worth than men for the same job – and adjust accordingly. Do you see how ridiculous that sounds? Well, that’s exactly what every company that pays women, transgender, and nonbinary people (of color) less than their male (white) counterparts in similar positions is communicating. It’s measurable, so fix it. Failure to correct these inequities by 2021 reads as intentional because restitution is not rocket science – it’s will.”
Kati Hornung is Co-Founder and Director of VoteEqualityUS (formerly VAratifyERA), a nonpartisan grassroots effort promoting equality for all Americans. Last year, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the 28th Amendment (Equal Rights). It’s the closest the United States has ever been to joining the 168 countries that already include gender equality in their constitutions.
“Women’s leadership is important because women’s voices must be present in decision making,” states Hornung. “Social science has proven diverse viewpoints make for better decisions, and it is important for inclusion to be the norm and not the exception.”
Liza Mickens, Co-Founder and Director of Interns of VoteEqualityUS, says that the recent rise of women in politics has been incredibly inspiring to her generation and women of color.
“This level of representation has been nearly a decade in the making since women first got the right to vote, and there is still more to accomplish,” says Mickens. “To this day, my great, great-grandmother, Maggie Walker, has been the only African American woman to make it on a statewide ballot in Virginia. This year, Virginia has the opportunity to make U.S. history by electing the first Black female Governor.”
And with the recent election of Kamala Harris, our nation has its first female, first Black, and first Asian-American, vice president.
“That being said, this is not the time to rest,” says Diane Beirne, Executive Director of The Woman’s Club. “There is so much more work to be done promoting women to leadership positions – especially among Black women and women of color.” In May 2021, Marlene Jones will become the first Black president of the club, which is designed to enhance the cultural and intellectual lives of its members.
“When it comes to women of color,” says Jones, “we seek intentionally committed folks desiring to shift their mindsets and behaviors to treat us with equity and inclusion. We can handle the rest.”
The Honorable Viola O. Baskerville adds that while there’s been an increase in Black women and women of color serving as elected officials and in leadership roles, “there must be an ongoing commitment to make sure there are more women in the pipeline ready to assume such roles.”
As a Virginia lawyer and politician who formerly served in the Virginia House of Delegates, Baskerville believes leadership roles must not only be normalized in the political arena, but in all facets of the workforce, including policy-making boards and corporate boards.
“Companies can ask women what would make a difference in their lives so that they can achieve leadership positions, and then those companies should act upon those responses. Words without action are meaningless.”
Exactly. Action is how we make change. Advocacy is how we ensure it lasts.
Just like the long overdue racial reckoning, the time has come for girls, women, and all people to truly be equal in this country. That means all people – regardless of gender, race, age, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, ability – as well as transgender and nonbinary people.
But the responsibility must not fall solely on girls and women. Everyone has a role to play in creating a more just and equitable world – especially men in leadership positions whose action and advocacy can have direct, immediate results. And that change can start now, right here in our community, by supporting girls in organizations like Girls For A Change.
“If you are an expert in a certain field or have a skill to share, we are always looking for professionals to provide workshops for the Girl Ambassador Program,” says CEO Angela Patton.
“Start a scholarship of your own in partnership with Girls For A Change or donate to one that already exists. Donate to help a girl in the program get her dorm ready, or pay for books or supplies, gift cards to Lyft so she can get around, or food delivery services so she can eat. Think about those simple things that college students need. Removing some of the stress helps them take care of their wellness to ensure their basic needs are covered. Little things can make a big difference.”
Ca’Miyah King is a participant in the Girl Ambassador Program and understands that organizations like Girls For A Change matter. “They make the difference. Children in communities need mentors like Sister Angela for that push to go forward in their journey to success.”
In addition to mentorship, Girl Ambassador Jayla Banks says that perceptions towards women, and women in leadership, must change.
“One way our society can promote gender equality is by giving a space for women and women of color to represent themselves, speak on their ideas, and remove the bias that women can’t lead,” she says.“We don’t see many women and women of color in leadership roles, so as young girls grow up, they automatically think that they’re not capable of being a leader. Having women in leadership roles today will enrich and prepare the upcoming generation.”
Iyanna Hardin is also a participant in the Girl Ambassador Program. Her parents, Malikah and Timothy Hardin, have seen firsthand how the experience has boosted her confidence.
“Because we live in a society where Black girls are devalued and mistreated,” says Iyanna’s mother, “I believe that programs like Girls For A Change help girls of color see their tremendous value and self worth… there is nothing they cannot accomplish.”
To someone who has never had to experience the complex challenges of gender and racial inequity, Iyanna has a request: empathy.
“Put yourself in the position of those who are facing these issues,” she says. “I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t ask to be Black. But I love being who I am. I love being Black. I love my curly hair. I love everything about me… Imagine waking up into a life and you’re simply hated on because of your color. Put yourself in our position and recognize how much it hurts us… how much it affects us as a people in our society.”
All three girls spoke of the importance of representation – seeing women, especially Black women and women of color, on shows they watch, in magazines they read, in murals they pass, and yes, as leaders in our country and community.
“People don’t doubt what Black girls and women can do. It’s that they don’t want to accept it,” states Iyanna. “But look at what we’ve done. We have been the minds and the power behind great things. We are scientists, mathematicians, coders, entrepreneurs, doctors. We can do so much. And you’ve seen it.”
“But there are people who believe that if we’re in these positions, we’re looked at as inferior, or as competition. It does not have to be that way. We can be in this position, and you can be in your position, and we can win together.”
And that’s just it. The beauty of equality is that everyone wins. If we treat one another with dignity and respect, take action to create equitable opportunities, and always advocate for equality, then we won’t need a month or a day to celebrate our progress.
With diversity in leadership, we’ll be living our progress every day.
If interested in learning more about scholarship opportunities through Girls For A Change or supporting girls enrolled in the Girl Ambassador Program, contact Altimese Curry at [email protected].
Top Photo: A mural celebrating Black girls in Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia, conceived by girls at Girls For A Change and executed in partnership with Richmond muralists Hamilton Glass and Austin “Auz” Miles. Photo by EVERGIB / Brian Gibson.
Special thanks to Ashley Ray for assisting with photography assets.
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