October 15, 2015 — If I could choose one word to describe myself, it would be “resourceful.” At an early age, I quickly learned that locating and securing resources was an important part of navigating life. My mother constantly praised my ability to figure things out on my own. Whether it was reading a book about tying my shoes or observing my brother to learn the proper technique for riding a bike, I’ve always had a knack for finding solutions to any difficulty.
As a first-generation college student, I had no choice but to put my resourcefulness into action. I recall several nights that I stayed up late during my senior year of high school to write my college submission essays, exhausted and smelling of fry grease from the part-time job at McDonalds that helped pay for the application fees. My parents felt hopeless and, for the first time, incapable of giving me advice on ways to navigate that process. I sought support from my guidance counselors at school, but was discouraged from applying to top universities because I would not be a good “fit” with their rigorous academic environments.
Once I was accepted and enrolled in my four-year university, I faced new challenges without adequate resources. The high cost of textbooks had not been on my radar, nor did I have the skills needed for developing effective study habits. I knew that I would need mentors in order to excel, and found one in a postdoc from my research lab. I relied on networking and newly acquired research skills to begin working with her on projects. In return, she advised me through the completion of a multistage research study, and shared advice from her experiences as a first-generation college student who was now in graduate school.
I’ve benefited a lot personally and professionally from acquiring social and financial resources. Yet accessing and retaining these resources can be tedious for women of color. It’s more challenging for minority women to foster genuine connections to well-resourced individuals in their companies because of racial and gender biases. According to a recent study from the Working Mother Institute, most women of color struggle with advancement at their jobs due to a lack of resources. Minority women are less satisfied with the resources that they believe would help with their advancement, including their networks of senior minority women and existing professional-development activities. I was very lucky to find my postdoctoral mentor, as our similar backgrounds made it easier to develop a trusting and nurturing relationship, which affects overall performance and engagement for ethnic minority women.
Without trust, biases and stereotyping may influence how coworkers and managers interact with their women of color colleagues. Black women’s perceived stereotyping by their coworkers also hindered their advancement. In fact, a recent study suggests that black and Latina women are more likely to be mistaken as janitors and administrative support in their organizations. Navigating these stereotypes, in addition to the gap in resources for advancement, decreases minority women’s commitment to their organizations.
Building resources for ethnic minority women in the workplace can generate larger gains and better outcomes for their chosen fields or industries. So how can companies ensure that multicultural women have access to resources and use those resources effectively to advance in their fields? One way might be increasing minority women’s sense of belonging to their organizations. Organizational leaders can provide their women of color employees with access to other ethnic minority women inside and outside of their organizations. Both formal professional development programs and informal interactions positively affect women of color’s experiences and commitment to their companies.
Here at Catalyst, we want to know the type of environments where diverse women feel supported and included through opportunities for career advancement in an identity-safe work environment. We encourage you to follow our women of color research and share your stories of ways that your company bridges the gap from existing resources to succeeding at work.