Seven Words That Could Stall Any Woman’s Career Path
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
It’s a saying that has been circulating in networking events and professional development seminars — particularly those geared toward women, people of color, and other underrepresented or marginalized groups — for many years.
Having worked in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) field for more than a decade — and with a career spanning 20 years — I have said it myself. In fact, just last month, I delivered a keynote address to a group of female computer engineers on this very topic.
I was about halfway through writing my remarks when I had a realization: I am something that I never saw before.
I am a first in so many ways:
- The first in my family to attend college.
- The first to work abroad.
- The first to hold a corporate leadership position.
And hopefully, in years to come, the first to be a member of the C-suite.
Part of why I hold this distinction is because other members of my family did not see education as a realistic goal or, even if they did, a practical one. I did not have firsthand knowledge about how to apply to college, obtain a Pell grant or access the resources that would help me figure it out. I barely knew my way around the classroom let alone the boardroom. This is why representation matters — and it’s what the saying gets right.
At the same time, “You can’t be what you can’t see” misses the fact that someone has to be the first. As many women and people of color know, more often than not, being the first is not something that happens by chance or invitation. For outsiders, opportunity is not something freely given — it is something you’re constantly seeking out.
A Passive Approach to an Urgent Problem
Perhaps we should ask who and what exactly we are waiting for. Where will this change come from, if not driven by the women and people of color most invested in it? And how will anyone ever “see it” if companies and boards don’t take representation seriously and accelerate efforts to address this imbalance? And treat it as if the success of their companies depends on it, as research says it does?
The problem with the saying as it stands is that it does not assign responsibility to those who are part of the status quo. Diversity and equity are many times written off as problems too complex to solve on the individual level, but at the same time without acknowledging the need for collective action and leadership.
Every now and then, I see the power of wider change, as driven by people and companies with clout. Beyoncé demanding that a black photographer be hired to shoot her for the cover of Vogue — a first for the magazine despite being in publication for more than 125 years — is one of the most prominent examples of a person using their personal platform to address systemic change.
More recently, NBC announced that they will not televise the Golden Globes amid concerns over a lack of diversity. It was a decision that came on the heels of an announcement by Netflix about similar concerns. This, by the way, isn’t much of a surprise: It often takes a newcomer to push for change on issues that have long since plagued an industry. Once a disruptor, always a disruptor.
But make no mistake, this isn’t only a pressing issue in Hollywood because it is “the right thing to do.” It is a pressing issue because executives in Hollywood are waking up to the fact that they are leaving billions on the table by shutting out diverse creators.
Good for Netflix. And hopefully good for all of us. Because what companies need to realize is that diversity is good for business. Study after study proves that more diverse teams do better work and get better results. More diverse leadership is likely to understand the needs and wants of a more diverse customer base. In fact, the lack of diversity is costing companies tremendous amounts of money — $1 trillion USD a year by some estimates — because decisions in the boardroom can fail to account for a wider range of needs and perspectives.
Imagine what would happen if companies in other industries took a cue from Netflix and decided to be a change agent. What if the major brands in fashion took a stand for more opportunities to be given to emerging and diverse designers? Imagine what would happen if brands refused to work with advertising agencies unless they hired more women and people of color on their teams. Think for just a second about how great it would be if admissions agents and HR professionals were from the communities where our schools and companies are in most need of recruits instead of mostly fishing from the same Ivy League pool we so often prioritize.
“You can’t be what you can’t see” as a call to action to increase numbers of underrepresented folks is the right sentiment — it’s just not totally accurate. We need to update our thinking on how change comes about because seeing others achieve is not the only way to inspire careers and realize potential.
The onus can’t be solely on women, people of color and other underrepresented groups to always lead the way. We must all assume some of the responsibility — to be the leaders, role models and agents of change that we have not yet seen, and open our eyes to what we can become.
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