The Only One in the Room
October 22, 2020
This article is part of a larger series that focuses on diversity and equity in marketing through the amplification of Black and racially diverse authors. As a company, we are committed to identifying actions we can take in the fight against racism and injustice, and elevating BBIPOC voices is paramount to inspiring change. Follow along and read other posts in this series here.
After I graduated from business school, I got my first “real job” as an email marketing specialist in Austin, Texas. Over my 8-year tenure with the company, I would be the only Black woman on my team, barring the intern that I hired for one summer semester. (Incidentally, that intern is still the only Black woman with whom I’ve worked directly over the course of my entire professional career.)
Though we only worked together for about eight weeks over eight years ago, having her on my team still feels revolutionary.
Kiana was unapologetic about who she was in that space.
She would rock giant, early ’90s-style headphones while banging out excellent work. Every time she walked down our corridor of cubicles, the white guy on the team would remark about how Kiana “smelled like vacation.” Apparently, the smell of Shea Moisture daily leave-in conditioner wafting from abundant natural curls smells like vacation. And apparently, this was the first time Winston* was having that experience.
Working with Kiana provided me with my first opportunity to see, from the outside, how it could look to exist as a Black woman in the workplace. This was the first time I heard the way my co-workers talked about Black women in our corporate space.
This was the first time I considered that I might be able to bring more of myself to work — like Kiana was unafraid to do.
Undervalued, Overlooked, and All Alone
Black women are 7.8% of the U.S. labor force, but only represent 4.2% of white collar employees. This is despite earning 11.4% of bachelor’s degrees, 15.1% of master’s degrees, and 10.4% of doctorates in the U.S. We earn 63 cents for every $1 that our white male counterparts earn, and we make up .03% of executive and senior level positions. There are 3 Black female Fortune 500 CEOs.
What this means for Black women in marketing — and in all areas of corporate life— is that we are underrepresented and outnumbered.
It means that when we are present, you’re not getting us at 100%. It means that when we have a dissenting viewpoint or strong opinion, you’re unlikely to hear it as we know we’ll have to defend it alone. It means that you’re likely only hearing what we think you want to hear, because just by looking around, we’re constantly reminded of how hard it was to get our foot even this far into the door.
Diversity asks how many voices there are while inclusion asks whose ideas won’t be taken seriously because they’re in the minority. After years of having one’s ideas not taken seriously, it becomes strategic to stop expressing those ideas altogether.
After years of being the only one in the room, it becomes expedient to assume that you will be misunderstood. After countless examples of coworkers showing that they’re uncomfortable with the differences one brings to the table, it becomes prudent to be guarded.
Being a Black woman in marketing means providing tacit approval to the annual “diversity message” during Black History Month. Being a Black woman in corporate America means getting reported to your manager by a director-level coworker for taking a “sharp tone” during a meeting, being repeatedly mistaken for the only other Black woman at the company, and finding a noose hanging at your desk because your co-worker didn’t realize that might be upsetting to you. (Yes, these are all my actual, lived experiences.)
But it’s an understatement that America is currently going through a shift. Regardless of your opinion, political ideology or background, it is impossible to ignore that something is wrong. Even implicit in the statement by the CEO of Wells Fargo that there is “a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from” is the idea that Black employees have gone missing from our business institutions.
As small as it is, this realization and acknowledgement that Black people have been disproportionately shut out of corporate America is a radical change.
A Change Is Gonna Come
So, the question for corporations becomes, “What can we do to increase our diversity? How do we possibly fix this?” to which my suggestion would be, “Hire more Black people.”
If it turns out that your candidate pool is all white, reconsider where you’re placing your ads. If you realize that no one in your management team is Black, consider the methods you’re using to coach your employees. If you look around and realize that you’ve had the same one Black person on the team for the last eight years, offer to pay for their membership to a local Black networking group like the Urban League.
Because I guarantee you they’ve noticed they’re the only one. I guarantee you it’s affecting them. And, I guarantee you that they haven’t told you about it because they don’t feel safe having that conversation.
Everyone needs a Kiana. Everyone needs someone to show them that it’s okay to be themselves in the workplace, someone with whom they can resonate, someone who has their back.
I called Kiana while I was writing this article to understand what this experience had been like from her perspective. I was completely flattered to hear her say that having me as her “first real boss” created a sense in her that Black women belong in the office. She said that throughout her career, she found it natural and unexceptional to see Black women in positions of authority.
That gives me hope.
Kiana Fitzgerald has gone on to become an incredible journalist with bylines at Rolling Stone, NPR, Vibe Magazine and about a dozen other publications. She continues to speak up with a uniquely powerful voice and a sharp eye for how pop culture and current events intersect. It makes me incredibly proud to be a footnote on her journey as I know she’s still just getting started.
Every Voice Matters
In my ideal world, these types of relationships will blossom in every business. I look forward to the day when every marketing team can speak to their diverse customer base with an authentic voice because the people they’re attempting to reach are actually represented on the team.
For Black and other marginalized folks, this is your call to show up. Even if it’s scary or you need to start small, start bringing more “you” to the workplace. Speak up when you know something could be done better. Tell someone when the messaging will alienate 12% of your audience.
You’re in your position for a reason, so take up space.
To my people in the majority, I encourage you to listen to the silences. In your next meeting, take note of which voices are getting the most airtime. If you manage someone who you suspect isn’t being heard, start building trust in your one-on-ones. Ask for their opinion. Start soliciting their feedback in a safe setting and let them know when you’ll have their back. You may be surprised by the ideas you’re currently not hearing.
I’m excited by the prospect that a Black woman is getting hired on a team right now because the manager realizes that “fit” doesn’t mean creating a group of identical people who will never challenge his or her worldview.
I believe that we do our best work when we feel safe, supported, understood, and we’re able to bring every aspect of ourselves to the table. God willing, the shift that we’re feeling right now will be the thing that gets us there.
With over 10 years of experience in sales and marketing roles across 5 different industries, Bevin Morgan thinks of herself as a Marketing Generalist. She is currently taking on sports licensed apparel and headwear as a Brand Manager at Fanatics.
Bevin left her first career in Atlanta to receive her MBA at The McCombs School at The University of Texas before landing in Lexington, Kentucky, where she now lives.
Bevin has recently founded an organization called The Walker Society, where she supports Black women on their personal financial journeys through coursework and community.
Visit this page to see more in the series, or check back in a week for our next guest post.
CM Group is a family of global marketing technology brands including Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru and Vuture. By joining together these leading brands, CM Group offers a variety of world-class solutions that can be used by marketers at any level. Headquartered in Nashville, TN, CM Group has United States offices in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and global offices in Australia, London, New Zealand and Uruguay.
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