As a female leader, how have you been able to achieve your current level of success, given the persisting gender gap issues that continue to impact many professions and industries today?
LILLY: I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really amazing mentors in my life. From lifelong friendships to college professors to great bosses, there are many who have given me guidance along the way—taking the time to help me succeed and to show me respect. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my mentors constantly picking my brain.
SYREETA: When and where I’ve seen an opportunity, I’ve always made a point to not let it go wasted. As a woman and person of color, I’ve especially emphasized making the absolute best out of every career opportunity that was put in front of me and owning the responsibility to be in spaces and conversations where I’m often the one and only.
QIANA: I attribute my success to great mentors, coaches and sponsors that have been willing to support me and advocate for me. The diverse set of people I stay connected with provides me different perspectives that help me grow and feedback that I implement to elevate as a leader.
DANIELLE: I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of strong, fierce and supportive women including my mom, Vernetta and my mentor, Shari Runner. Their example, advice and genuine support has certainly played a pivotal role in my current success despite many odds being stacked against me as a black woman in America. I pay it forward by serving as a mentor to a number of promising young women as they prepare to graduate college and enter the world of work and I look forward to the ways that they will help shatter the glass ceiling.
MELANIE: Women are well-represented in the sectors I’ve worked in, whether the arts, communications, or philanthropy. Yet in any industry, advancement still takes work and a work culture willing to support it. You can see the results of an organization’s attention, and inattention, to supporting diverse perspectives at top levels of leadership especially. I seek out and appreciate groups like the Pier that commit to working with emerging professionals, which can go a long way in bridging gaps. By investing in us, we gain opportunities to hone our skills, make the kinds of connections we need to, and learn from others who primed a path forward. We may be presented with the same barriers, but we have new tools and the confidence of those who have seen us step up. I’m happy to have met and learned from many outstanding women leaders in these groups, women who speak candidly and build each other up when we see an important perspective not being heard.
More than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since February of last year, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Women of color—particularly Black and Hispanic women—bear the brunt of the financial pain from the pandemic. How can organizations and those in positions of privilege and power help women of color recover?
LILLY: Economic disparities have meant that Black and brown communities have suffered job losses as a result of the pandemic. But, let’s think about mothers. On top of that, women bear a substantially heavier care burden exacerbated even further by the pandemic. We have to continue to address the wealth gap that affects these communities of color—organizations and those in power should double down on funding policy, programs, and support systems to (1) ease the burden of care, (2) offer a pipeline back into the workforce, and (3) create a lasting social safety net to support vulnerable women (i.e. virtual learning support, care giving support, and employee benefits).
SYREETA: Starting somewhere is key. They should recognize that it is a complex issue and they don’t have all the answers. They should work to identify those organizations that have spent a great deal of time on these systemic issues and invest deeply into those organizations and build partnerships to make real change.
QIANA: First, acknowledge that this is happening around us. If you are not willing to acknowledge that this is happening, then you won’t see a reason to do something about it. Second, reach out to the Black and Hispanic women you know and find out how you can support them. Third, offer them opportunities with flexibility.
DANIELLE: Organizations and those in positions of privilege and power must first center the voices and concerns of women of color in order to truly help them recover from the devastation of the pandemic. Women of color often serve as the backbone and primary breadwinners of their family and when they’re impacted, the effects reverberate through their households and communities for years to come. So, it is vitally important that policies and procedures are created that address their immediate and long-term needs in areas like childcare, health care, affordable housing and their earning potential.
MELANIE: In my work at 3Arts, a nonprofit that focuses on Chicago women artists and artists of color, it has been hard to witness so many people suffering financial loss on several fronts at once. These are people who lost their livelihood overnight, whose industry will be the last to reopen, and are surviving with a fraction of support as others had to begin with. The pandemic has resulted in multi-system failure, and it uncovers deeper vulnerabilities there all along. It will take a very long time to recover. For those who can give, give without extreme requirements that force people already in desperate situations into conditions they cannot reasonably fulfill. For employers, offer flexibility, and be proactive in checking in with employees who may be too afraid to reveal issues, financial or otherwise, for fear of losing their jobs. As a woman of color, myself, I have seen how even simple considerations can go a long way.
What’s something that you wish you knew at the start of your career that you feel would be helpful to know as a young woman entering the workforce?
LILLY: Being a young woman, you are bound to run into obstacles in your career path. When faced with those challenges, you must have the strength to take in the moment, process, learn, and respond. There will be people who are not a fan of you, for whatever reason it may be, but you yourself are the writer to your own story. These experiences will make you stronger and allow you to realize that you don’t have to be liked by everyone, and you don’t have to like everyone around you—but when you go to work each day, love what you do, do your job well, respect and collaborate with others, and make an impact—that is what matters. Be proud of yourself and give yourself credit for your journey.
SYREETA: Your voice matters. Don’t doubt yourself.
QIANA: You don’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be the perfect time to try something new or go for the next opportunity. I wish I would have jumped on opportunities earlier and took more risk. I feel that I missed some opportunities because I was waiting for the right time and wanted to make sure I was 100% ready. I’m sure I would be further along in my career if I betted on myself earlier.
DANIELLE: My advice for any young woman entering the workforce is to never forget to carve out time for yourself (self-care is so important). I wish I had known the importance of building a life outside of work because companies will replace you in a heartbeat! My final piece of advice to young women is to figure out early on how to maintain a work life balance especially with the current widespread ability to work remote.
MELANIE: Give yourself credit for the journey. When I started my career in the arts, I knew I would be carving out a path that was unconventional. Still, at the time I wasn’t convinced what I decided to do was the one job, or even the one field, I ought to be pursuing—and it was a point of insecurity. Today, I find myself a stronger person having led and gained experiences in many industries, all while staying true to myself and the work I aimed to do. If I were to advise that same young woman, I would say for as many reasons to see the unknown as a weakness, you’ll find as many to discover your agility is your strength. Channel the doubt you harbor from others’ expectations, instead into energy building something of your own. Further still, actively surround yourself with people you can trust to see your strengths, who you’ll need when taking on bigger challenges down the road, and do the same for them.