It’s Time to Leverage Multicultural Women

Not so long ago, diversity was seen as black and white, male and female. Little attention was paid to the extraordinary experiences, contributions and career challenges of multicultural women. This has created an achievement gap that persists. Not only are multicultural women under-represented in the retail and consumer goods industry’s leadership, their unique challenges are not being addressed — something we have to do if we’re to achieve a workplace with no limits.

Multicultural women face two career challenges, as women and as persons of color. Company policies and corporate cultures that ignore those challenges and the unique contributions of multicultural women are doing the women and the company a disservice. “We are seeing a big difference in performance between companies that are more diverse and those that are more insular,” says Valerie Lewis, assistant vice president, assistant secretary and senior corporate counsel for Safeway Inc.

Indeed, while industry leaders have been talking about the importance of the multicultural consumer for the last decade, no real progress has been made advancing multicultural women to senior roles. As a result, most retail and consumer products companies are not fully benefitting from the rich diversity of thought these employees offer.

Last year, NEW released the “Tapestry” report, based on research; interviews with industry leaders; and an online survey exploring multicultural women’s advancement opportunities, the workplace experiences of women and men of all backgrounds, corporate practices and the role of white women and men in closing the career achievement gap. As white women make slow but steady progress into executive levels, the report revealed, multicultural women can find their upward advancement stalling out in hidden places of the organizational chart while the circumstances that hinder their movement go unnoticed.

“There are folks [of color] who were superstars [at their jobs], but who are no longer with their companies because they weren’t considered for advancement,” Lewis said. “Sometimes a person of color will get feedback that sounds a lot like, ‘Gee, you are doing so well, why aren’t you happy? Look at what you have now.’ Senior management may promote one or two minorities who they are comfortable with and think we should be happy with that ‘diversity.’ However, for there to be meaningful change, there has to be a top-down commitment to diversity in all areas of the enterprise.”

At PepsiCo Inc. that commitment exists and the bottom line has benefited from it. Multicultural women have helped grow businesses that may not have been developed by other employees, according to Tom Greco, CEO of Frito-Lay North America. For example, a Latina employee helped PepsiCo see the opportunity in securing the sponsorship of the Mexican national soccer team in advance of the 2014 World Cup. “We embraced the multicultural consumer and we advanced multicultural leaders who have a visceral understanding of our consumer,” Greco said. “As a result, we’re growing faster.”

To create an inclusive environment, companies must recognize the differences in how women perceive the workplace and nurture a culture that will leverage the talents and traits of multicultural women leaders, rather than continue the encouragement of “covering” — which finds multicultural women feeling pressure to hide certain aspects of their lives, and feeling uncomfortable being their authentic selves at work.

An African-American woman responding to the NEW survey noted the majority of high-level executives — white males — are more comfortable working with white women than multicultural women, because “[white women] were the first to break through the ceiling, and they’re what white men executives are used to [as] wives, mothers, sisters.[Among men of all races and ethnicities], there’s a comfort level of talking sports, etc. Women of color just don’t have that one thing that brings comfort to the executives, so it can sometimes provide a barrier.”

Respondents to the NEW survey ranked “corporate culture is not diverse” as the No. 1 reason there are not more multicultural women in leadership roles in the retail and consumer goods industry, proof that to leverage the diversity of thought and leadership skills that multicultural women bring to corporate America, companies must champion cultural fluency through role modeling, policies and procedures.

“People are making progress in advancing the presence of multicultural women, but not enough,” says Rodney McMullen, CEO of The Kroger Co. “We must not be satisfied until the diversity of our workforce represents the diversity of our customer base. We have to find a way to do more and do it faster.”

“We embraced the multicultural consumer and we advanced multicultural leaders who have a visceral understanding of our consumer. As a result, we’re growing faster.”
— Tom Greco, CEO, Frito-Lay North America

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