Black women are struggling to feel valued, respected, and supported at work.
That’s according to a recent report from Every Level Leadership, a workplace DEI consulting firm, which found that 88% of Black women report experiencing burnout in their careers, fueling the need for effective change in the workplace.
What does healing look like for women of color in the workplace, and what role can leadership play in creating equitable environments where everyone feels empowered, valued, and seen?
To find out more about the hurdles facing women of color as well as the tools everyone can use to demonstrate humanity, dignity, equity, and respect, MBAchic sat down with Workplace and Equity Consultant Minda Harts. As the bestselling and award-winning author of The Memo, Right Within, and You Are More Than Magic she has built her post-Corporate America career on speaking her truth and helping others to sift through the hard, uncomfortable moments, to find their own.
Minda Harts believes every person has a voice: it’s just a matter of deciding how to use it. She hopes everyone from prospective employees, to C-Suite executives will consider how their piece of the collective puzzle can make their workplace better than they found it.
TRANSCRIPTION: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MBAchic: Hi everyone! I’m MBAchic reporter Torri Singer, we are very excited to be joined by Minda Harts today – Minda is a Workplace and Equity Consultant. She is also the bestselling and award-winning author of The Memo, Right Within, and You Are More Than Magic. Minda thank you so much for joining us! we have a lot we’d like to dive into with you today.
Minda Harts: Thank you Torri, happy to be here, thank you.
MBAchic: You talk about healing and freedom for women of color in the workplace, what does that look like in 2022?
Minda Harts: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things that I think about often is freedom and the definition, or one definition of freedom is no longer feeling confined. And I think that women of color women, anyone who feels like they’re on the margin have felt confined inside the workplace, that you can’t bring your authentic pieces to your, of yourself, to the workplace that you can’t, you know, maybe use your birth given name because of people’s conscious or unconscious biases. The more I started to think about that, if you’re in any environment for too long, you are experiencing some sort of trauma. If it’s, you can’t be who you need to be in that space or you’re not met with humanity, dignity, and respect. So for me, I’m like, what could it look like if women of color were able to be free at work? It would require us to heal in order to know that there could be better and what good looks like. And so I want us to interrogate what good looks like to us, not what good looks like to the status quo.
MBAchic: Chronic stress can result when someone experiences repeated microaggressions, can you give some examples of what those might look like or feel like when they happen specifically at work?
Minda Harts: Yeah. You know, I think the reality is that the workplace that we all know it to be, we’d normalize some bad behavior. So we’ve just said, “oh, that’s just Jim being Jim,” or “that’s Connie being Connie.” But if we really strip it back, are they causing more harm than good by the things that they’re constantly saying? So for example, I had a manager we’ll call him Chad for today. He said, after seeing that I had burnt orange fingernail polished on, “you, people love your bright colors.” Now some would say, “oh, he didn’t mean any harm. He was just complimenting your nails.” That could be true. But when you use statements like “you people,” it tends to be demeaning and not make the person on the receiving end feel good. I feel like when you’re a person of color, when you’re a woman of color, you’re experiencing that type of language, that type of behavior on a daily, if not hourly, weekly basis.
And if you’ve been in any environment for so long after time, you start to hold onto that. You start to internalize that and I believe that’s how imposter syndrome starts to creep up. I also feel like that’s where chronic stress turns into chronic illness. So if you’re always in a fight or flight mode inside your workplace, because you’re worried about, “is Chad gonna say that thing in today’s meeting?” You’re already bracing for it, and that’s chronic stress to your body, that’s trauma. So nobody can do their best work under those types of constraints. I think it’s important that we understand that two things can be true at the same time. We might work at the same place and experience that workplace very differently. So how can we remove that barrier for our colleagues that are experiencing that chronic stress on a daily basis?
MBAchic: Thank you for that. I know that a concept that you also are passionate about is the process of healing. It’s not overnight, it doesn’t happen because you decide that you want to heal, right. There’s a lot of factors at play. Any type of healing is a process. After spending 15 years in Corporate America, what are your top tools for anyone — but particularly women of color — dealing with racism in the workplace?
Minda Harts: Yeah, that’s really great. And I, I wanna just echo what you said that healing is not a one time event. It’s a lifestyle, right. And I left corporate America in 2019. And so just because I left doesn’t mean I don’t experience triggers or trauma or whatever the case may be. I’m still working through a lot of that. But I realize that I put myself in a position where I’m not going to allow someone because of what they said or did stop me from my healing journey. And so, number one, the tool that you have that all of us have is healing is a choice. We have to decide if we want to go down that path for freedom, again, no longer feeling confined. The other thing that I include in my book Right Within is something called the affirmation pyramid. And it’s a quick five things.
I’ll just run it really quick. It’s when something does happen and you have a microaggression or macroaggression in the workplace, sometimes you’re looking for someone else to say something on your behalf. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed if you’re waiting on somebody else, but you have the power to take care of yourself. So one of those things is first to pause because you don’t have to respond right away. You can take that in. Number two is you can acknowledge that harm has been caused to you. Maybe it wasn’t their intention, but it harmed you. Right? So the intent versus the impact, the impact is harmful to you, and so you don’t have to normalize that. You don’t have to say, “that’s just Tom being Tom,” or “Tom had a bad day.” If it affected you and it’s harmful, then let’s name it. You can’t move on if you don’t name it. The next thing is document because sometimes we question these things – the microaggression, sexism, racism, homophobia, whatever it might be. But if you document it, you’ll see that there are patterns here. So when you do, if you do decide to have a conversation with that person or HR, your manager, you can say, “you know, I don’t just feel like so-and-so was being sexist or racist, this is what happened at 12:59 on Tuesday, and again on Friday,” and you could actually see where it is and it releases you from thinking that you’ve done something wrong.
The next thing is to redistribute that energy. I think many of us, when things happen to us in those settings, and you’re the only, or one of few you’ll often say, did I do something wrong or you’ll internalize it. And, again, internalizing that negativity causes stress, which leads to chronic illness in many cases. And so, redistribute that energy, don’t play it on a loop in your head, what happened all day long, because guess what? That person who caused the harm, they’re not thinking about you anymore. They moved on with their day. So don’t allow yourself to let them run rent free in your mind. And then lastly, affirm yourself. Sometimes you won’t have a colleague or a manager that’s brave enough, or courageous enough to call it out or do something about it, but you can affirm yourself. You didn’t do anything to deserve it. And you deserve humanity, dignity, equity, and respect, period.
MBAchic: I appreciate you laying out that framework for our audience and our community, because regardless of where you are, maybe you’re in an entry level position, maybe you’re in a management position or even in that C-suite – there’s all different scenarios we could find ourselves in that are beyond uncomfortable, they’re not okay, and being able to vocalize that and have that record, I think that’s so powerful. You just laid out those important words that I think you’ve echoed a lot in your writing, humanity, dignity, equity, and respect are kind of the groundwork for the movement that you’ve created. Are there any coping mechanisms that have helped you to remind you that you are good enough to deserve all of those things that you are valuable? Because I think sometimes, often we have these experiences we internalize and then we lose that sense of self-worth and self confidence. I would imagine specifically for women of color, that’s extraordinarily difficult because of these different racial adversities that many are facing in work settings. So can you touch on any coping mechanisms that have helped you?
Minda Harts: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of them is that mindset shift right back to your point of knowing that you’re good enough to deserve it. Sometimes we’ve been in these situations and often, depending on, I know for me being a first generation college student, I was just happy to be here. You know, I don’t want to rock the boat. And so realizing that we all have worked very hard to get to whatever position, whatever level, whatever wrung on the ladder that we have. So we owe it to ourselves. Part of that, self-advocacy, part of that self care is making sure that we create boundaries that center us. And so I know I’ve been in a workplace where my colleagues can say whatever they want and nobody calls them angry, or feisty, or docile. Then the moment that someone of color says something, then all of a sudden they’re aggressive.
You know, and I’ve learned that the mindset shift is: I can say what I mean without saying it mean, and that’s one tool. Because oftentimes people don’t even know what our boundary is because we’ve never established it. And then number two is that our success is not a solo sport. You know, it’s hard to heal alone. And so, find communities like these. Read books, podcast resources, so that you don’t feel like you’re alone because oftentimes we’re suffering in silence and freedom can be found in the ecosystem. So know that you’re not alone. I think that’s half the battle, just thinking that you’re alone and you’re the only one dealing with this, but together we can find freedom.
MBAchic: Thank you for that. You had touched on something else that I wanted to ask you, that theme saying what you mean without saying it mean. It really reminds us of the power of communicating our words, our words have weight, the way we speak to our colleagues matters, the way that our managers speak to us matters. So what’s your advice with that mentality in mind, how can managers or leadership best lead diverse teams to help everyone feel seen and heard?
Minda Harts: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the main thing in my opinion is in order to create a good workplace, we have to get back to trust, right? Because a lot has happened in the last couple of years. And I think that just because we say certain things doesn’t make it true. Just because we say, “psychological safety is here,” or “you can be your authentic self,” doesn’t mean that it’s been demonstrated. So for leaders and managers, I think it’s really important right now to lean into your soft skills, which are really leadership skills like listening, emotional intelligence. When someone comes to you and says they have an issue, don’t dismiss it. Your job is to remove the barrier, not create more. And I think we have to rebuild trust in the workplace because, I’m never going to show up as my authentic self if I don’t trust you as my manager. So I think it’s important that we go back to the basics, listening to each other, hearing each other out. I often talk about how it takes courage for somebody to tell you how they’re experiencing the workplace. They’re telling you that because they want you to partner with them to try to remove that barrier, so think about that as a privilege. Thank you for telling me that so now I can be a courageous listener and hear you out so that we could remove this barrier together. I think if we try to make the workplace work for everybody, then that’s seeing everyone’s experiences, and doing something about it, because we all have a role to play. I do believe managers have a really unique opportunity to make sure that everyone on their team feels seen, heard, and respected.
MBAchic: Thank you. That being said, right now at this moment, it’s 2022. It feels like a majority of Corporate America is making an attempt to create DEI efforts and some are really affecting actual change, they’re getting feedback from their team. Others are trying to duplicate something that they’ve seen work for other organizations, but it doesn’t make the mark of being intentional or thoughtful. So my question to you is how do you feel Corporate America can gain that awareness to really create transformative DEI frameworks that make a difference?
Minda Harts: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think a lot of it is really going back again to those soft leadership skills. I think oftentimes companies think they have to pour millions of dollars into this thing, but it’s actually the system and training that I think really helps. So for example, if you have a manager who is not comfortable managing women, or they aren’t comfortable talking about race, that’s, in my opinion, not someone that I would want managing a diverse team at all. So we have to decide, do we have the right people leading us into the next century? And if not, who are those people? And again, I’m not saying we should throw managers out because they don’t have certain competencies, but are we providing managers the tools and the training and the competencies so that their team benefits from that.
I think we have to look at leadership and management and take it very seriously because these are the people that are going to be a direct correlation to how you retain and attract diverse talent. And so I think, it can’t just be on the website. It can’t just be in the halls. It has to be in the demonstration. And I think that’s really key. And then I think the other thing is creating mechanisms in which employees, maybe women of color or people of color or anyone again – on the margins in the workplace – that they feel like their voices are seen without repercussion. Because I think for a very long time, women of color, people of color, haven’t been able to speak their truth about the workplace they are experiencing without fear of losing their job. And so, I think we have to build trust. We have to create mechanisms where people feel safe to say how they feel, say what they mean without saying it mean, without that fear. And so I just think I’m optimistic. We’ve done a lot of work to get to this point, but I think now we have to move from not just the conversation, but to the demonstration.
MBAchic: Conversation to demonstration. I did want to touch on the concept of showing up as our authentic selves, we throw this phrase around a lot. It’s used a lot in business. But I’m curious, what ways can we encourage specifically women of color to show up as their authentic selves instead of the version that maybe Corporate America has traditionally been most comfortable with?
Minda Harts: I think in the theme of the demonstration, at every area of business and within a company or organization, people have to be able to see themselves. So if I’m a woman of color in your organization, you’re telling me that diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, all the letters are important. but I never see myself in leadership. I never see myself in a C-suite. I know the last time I went to HR, they dismissed my claims. So if I’m experiencing every turn that I’m not visible within this company, that my thoughts that my career doesn’t matter to those who are saying these things, then I’m never going to feel like I can bring my authentic self to work because I don’t see myself represented at work. And I think that’s something that people have to think about.
It’s hard to bring your authentic self when you don’t see yourself there because now you are worried about what that could mean and then you have to keep educating everybody on what that means, depending on what culture you come from. And so I think it’s really important again, to make sure that we are demonstrating that it’s a safe place to bring yourself because you can just say it, but it might not be safe and psychological safety doesn’t happen just because we say it 10 times fast, right? it has to be embedded in everything that we do. And lastly, the other part of this, if you are a woman of color and you’re thinking about, oh, I want to be able to bring my authentic self to work. I want to challenge you to think about it differently. What do I need to bring my healthiest self to work? Because if I’m healthy at work, then I’ll bring those authentic pieces that I need. But if you’re not in an environment where you can thrive and you’re just surviving, then you’re never gonna be able to bring your true self and you’re never gonna be able to do the best work of your career.
MBAchic: Absolutely. I do want to touch on your most recent work, You Are More Than Magic. And I think if you don’t mind just delving a little bit into that, I know that you’re really proud of this work and I think our audience will be really excited to dive into it as well.
Minda Harts: Thank you for bringing that up. I am, I love all my book babies, but you know, You Are More Than Magic is a special book because it is reminding our young adults that they belong already. There’s nothing wrong with them. I think because they get early doses of demeaning who they are, silencing their voices, I think we take that into adulthood with us. I thought about myself, a lot of the things that I experienced in Corporate America, how I saw myself, some of that imposter syndrome, it didn’t start when I entered into Corporate America, it started way before that. I looked back at my teen years and I thought, wow, I silenced myself at 14. I silenced myself at 16. So I don’t want our young girls or our young boys or our young Royals to have to think about silencing themselves right now.
I want them to be able to have the tools in their toolkit that they can advocate for themself, even with an adult. Just because some of us don’t grow up in families where communication is healthy doesn’t mean that they can’t be healthy communicators. Giving them the tools to be able to say what they mean without saying it mean, giving them the tools to say, okay, well, if somebody doesn’t want to sit with me in the lunchroom, doesn’t mean something’s wrong with me. I think we just have to remind them that they are more than magic. You know, we say black girl magic, and it’s a fun thing to say, but there’s nothing magical about being who we are in this world. It takes grit, it takes determination, it takes love, and it takes affirmation. And, I just want our girls to know that they have everything they need already inside of them, and that we’re here to catch them if, and when they fall, we’re here to lift them up so that they can be their best selves.
Photo by Christina of WoCinTech