Ask the DEI Expert: Recruiting and Hiring Women of Color

August 5, 2020

As I spoke with many Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultants to compile our list of "10 DEI Experts Who Can Help Your Company Today," I realized one conversation just wasn’t enough. I jumped back on the phone with Michele Heyward, founder of Posi+iveHire, to learn more about her career path and her advice for organizations looking to hire and, more importantly, retain women of color.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I spent the bulk of my career in heavy construction, and as a Black woman, I was seen and not seen at the same time. I was seen as Black and a woman, but the value I brought to the organization was not seen. I had to work hard to make sure the people who made decisions saw my value. Luckily, I was able to work under a talented leader who inspired me to study leadership more intensely, but who also served as my sponsor. 

What made you shift into career coaching?

Our team was in St. Louis during Ferguson. The messaging I heard was, “They’re rioting, be careful.” But for me, I was thinking, “They’re rioting, I’m grateful!” I started speaking up and replying all to company emails calling out misinformation. And then, when my sponsor left the project and I didn’t align with the new management, I realized it was time for me to leave. 

In discussion with one of my other mentors, she shared how hard it was to advance her career after getting married and having kids. Even her husband, as a Black man, wasn’t hitting as many barriers. I kept talking with people in my circle and realized what my peers needed was career help. 

In 2017, I hosted my first Women in STEM Summit. Through that experience, I came up with the idea for Posi+iveHire, a coaching firm providing career advancement for experienced women of color in STEM.

Tell us more about Posi+iveHire.

We work with both employers and candidates to help fight systemic racism so underrepresented women in STEM feel they can show up as their authentic selves, where their voices are heard and their differences valued.

In the corporate world, STEM roles are only 4% Latina, 1% Indigenous women and 3% Black women. Right now, many of these women don’t feel valued, they don’t feel seen, and they encounter micro-aggressions, which is essentially legal racism.  

Why is this work so important?

I’ve been in engineering for 27 years now, the numbers aren’t changing for Black women and we’re seeing a regression, actually. But, for example, if we want to have medical devices that actually work for Black women, we have to be on the teams designing them. We have to be in the room and part of the decision-making process. It’s important that those of us who are oppressed be in positions to point out inequities in experience or impact. 

Once companies acknowledge they want to build a more diverse workforce, how do you recommend they get started?

The first thing I do is look at the company’s data to understand what the biggest issue is. I look into their attrition rates for the demographics they want to target, exit data, EEO complaints – all to help pinpoint specific issues.

I usually recommend starting where they don’t want to – with culture. And culture work is continuous. One workshop isn’t going to do it. If you want real change, you need something you can execute over the next 12 months to shift the nature of your organization. 

From there, I focus on retention. Retaining people of color keeps their knowledge in the organization and also shows others it’s a place where they can grow their careers too. It means a lot to see people stay and see them rising into management.

"Companies say they have pipeline issues when it comes to hiring Black, Latina and Indigenous women. They can’t find you to hire you, but they can find you to lay you off."

What are some common ways you’ve seen racial bias creep into the recruiting and hiring processes?

First, it’s with questioning the legitimacy of the candidate’s education, especially if it’s an HBCU. Next, we see questions like, “Do you have kids?” and “Will you be able to work late?” or “Will you be able to travel?” when it’s not relevant to the role. Lastly, we see employers point Black, Latina and Indigenous women to non-technical careers, completely discounting their technical experience. 

What do you say to the common (flawed) argument that actively seeking to hire candidates of color is the equivalent of “reverse discrimination?”

It is only reverse discrimination if you’re a racist. Systemic racism has you believe that everything is already fair, equal and balanced – but it’s not. We’ve shown that underrepresented groups, and especially Black women, come in with more education and experience, but face more micro-aggressions and are not given credit for their work.

Removing the barriers placed in front of us is not reverse discrimination; it’s anti-racist. There’s a great cartoon that shows this perfectly.

Illustration by Emanu (emanu.se)

What can we do to combat racism at work?

Now that we’re all talking about racism, we need to define what racist behavior really is, specifically in the workplace. When we agree on that or have some definitions and identifiers of what is racist, then allies are more able to call it out and take action against policies and practices which are racist. 

Do you have any final words you want to share?

Right now, we are seeing a lot of companies making public gestures to support Black employees. My advice: Do not make a gesture, take action. And that action has to be toward your organization becoming anti-racist and changing the culture. Your employees of color are watching.

Michele is currently accepting new corporate clients and can be contacted through her website, Posi+iveHire.com. She is also gearing up for her next virtual Women in STEM Summit, running from Sunday, November 8 through Friday, November 13, 2020.

Looking for additional insights to tackle equity in the workplace? Visit our Workplace Diversity, Anti-Racism and Allyship Resource Center. For more bite-sized brilliance, subscribe to our monthly newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Ann Melinger

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