According to the Equal Pay Today project, U.S. women made just 82 cents on the dollar compared to U.S. men in 2020. Economists acknowledge that the gender wage gap reflects a combination of systemic discrimination and challenges that women face in their multilayered roles as caregivers, educators and community leaders outside the workplace.
But a closer look at wage gap statistics reveals even more complexity, showing greater disparities for women of color: in the same year that women on average made 82 cents on the dollar, Black women made 63 cents, Native American women made 60 cents, and Latinas made 55 cents.
As these startling numbers suggest, conversations about gender equity in employment need to be informed by the experiences of women of color. This was the impetus behind a series of community conversations recently sponsored by the Muma College of Business Women and Leadership Initiative (WALI). With a title inspired by the now famous words of Vice President Kamala Harris, “I’m Speaking: Conversations About Race, Gender and Ethical Leadership” drew participants from among students and faculty, business partners and community members. It unfolded through three powerful dialogues about experiencing racism on the job, creating more equitable models of work, and becoming better allies to women of color in the movement for justice in business at beyond.
As series co-creator Skye Idehen (Founder and CEO, AfroCurators) explains, the three events were designed to work together to “create a compelling story.” “Conversations that Move” (Feb. 10) featured women sharing difficult truths of negotiating bias and injustice in their workplaces. “Conversations that Inspire” (March 18) presented interviews with local business women who are building new models of leadership and partnership to create more economic opportunity for people of color. “Conversations that Teach” (April 7) offered instruction and inspiration for participants who wanted to strengthen and deepen their allyship with communities of color in making systemic change.
This structure reflects the importance of, as Idehen says, “moving past the one and done model of diversity, equity, and inclusion training” that many companies still rely upon. Without a clear connection diversity, equity, and inclusion in company culture, she argues, “people can’t have the authentic experiences and conversations we need to be having.”
The series also reflected an important choice on the part of WALI’s leadership team, which is predominantly white, to work with women leaders of color to create a program that would center the words and experiences of women of color. The panel of co-creators that came together, along with additional panelists and moderators, represented an impressive range of communicators, educators, entrepreneurs, and community developers. Co-creators included Skye Idehen, Sam Obeid (Program Director, Community Tampa Bay); Dr. Ruthmae Sears (Associate Professor of Mathematics Education, University of South Florida Tampa); and Dr. Michelle Madden (Chief Diversity Officer, University of South Florida St. Petersburg).
Additional panelists included Audrina Bigos (Morning News Anchor, CBS Chicago); Sherrel Sampson (Founder and CEO, Canviiy); Latifa Jackson (Founder and CEO, Hurst Consulting Group, Inc.); Neudy Carolina Nuñez (Program Director, Academic Initiatives and Living Learning Communities, University of South Florida Tampa); Renée Baker (Head of PCG Advisor Inclusion Networks, Raymond James); Hillary Van Dyke (Co-Founder, Green Book of Tampa Bay); and Gypsy Gallardo (CEO, The Power Broker Media Group).
There were many important takeaways from these conversations. Recollections of workplace discrimination showed the profoundly corrosive impact of institutional racism and the exhausting struggle of, as panelist Latifa Jackson put it, “fighting back with a better version of yourself.”
Stories of partnership and mentorship demonstrated that intentional work on “moving the needle” of economic progress for marginalized communities enriches the entire community. And discussions about how to address microaggressions drove home the point that meaningful allyship means actively identifying and addressing racism when it surfaces, even when that requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Too often, concluded Director of WALI Mentorship Program Lisa Yasco at the close of the series, conversations about expanding opportunity and access in employment revolve around different ways of “parceling out the pie.” But perhaps real change will come from the exercise of imagining a bigger pie.
Though lessons abounded, the series offered much more than a typical DEI training. “It didn’t feel like a workshop series,” reflects co-creator Sam Obeid. “It eased people into cross cultural learning, giving people a chance to build empathy.” Participants had the chance to work in small groups, discussing how issues they learned about applied in their own organizational contexts and practicing how to identify and productively respond to microagressions they witness in the workplace. “We tried to be respectful of where people are with virtual meetings, and give them bite-sized chunks of information they could continue to work with,” says Obeid.
“The series was a success because we gave space to different voices,” Dr. Sears observes. “Those who lived and experienced racism, those who have catalyzed change, and those who offer explicit do’s and don’t’s for productive allyship.”
Dr. Rebecca Harris, WALI’s Director of Academic Programs, agrees. “White students attending the panels may not have considered the issues that were discussed, while many students of color said this really resonated. It made sense based on what they saw their mothers, sisters, and other family members go through.”
In the end, the series offered organizations inside and outside higher education much to build on. Businesses should recognize that compliance-based models of DEI training need to be replaced by education that is authentic and relevant to its organizational community. Conversations about diversity and equity need to be intentionally planned, with an emphasis on accountability for what participants bring to these spaces and what they take forward.
And as more effective learning models prevail, organizations can begin to think, as panelist Hillary Van Dyke proposes, about how principles of antiracism shape not just our personal convictions and interpersonal behaviors, but also the policies organizations create and live by.
The I’m Speaking series is part of a larger program of research, mentorship, and events focused on gender equity sponsored by WALI. To learn more about WALI, visit https://www.usf.edu/business/centers/women-leadership/.