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May 23 2016

‘Concrete Ceiling’: Breaking Through Barriers

Poughkeepsie Journal
featuring Sabrina Schaeffer

Early on, Mecca Santana wanted to be a lawyer. She was told otherwise.

“My uncle said, ‘You’re not going to be a damn lawyer,’ ” said Santana, an African-American woman, to an audience of about 60 mostly women during the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Leadership Alliance’s recent Concrete Ceiling event in Poughkeepsie.

Not only did Santana become an attorney, but she also worked alongside New York City’s notable district attorney, Robert Morgenthau. Later, she held positions as senior assistant counsel for the New York State Commission of Investigation, executive director of EEO and diversity management for the New York City Department of Education, and chief diversity officer for the state of New York.

Now Santana is vice president of diversity and community relations for the Westchester Medical Center Health Network. Not that any of it came easily.

“We didn’t see women of color in these positions,” she said. “When you think of leaders, very rarely is it a woman; even less, women of color.”

According to the American Association of University Women’s March 2016 report, “Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership,” 63 percent of business executives are men compared to 24 percent being Caucasian women; 2 percent, African-American women; 1 percent, Hispanic women; and 1 percent, Asian-American women. In government, 1 in 5 members of the U.S. Congress is female and only six of the nation’s states has a female governor, a mere two of which are of color.

Kevin Miller, a senior researcher with the AAUW, including for the “Barrier and Bias” report, said high-level positions are better paid, have more influence on a company’s direction and contribute more to a business’ accomplishments than lower-level jobs do.

“We know there are women in leadership and women of color in leadership, but not nearly as many, if things were equal and fair,” he said.

Diversity in the workplace, said Miller, benefits individuals and gives companies the opportunity to seek input on their directions from a broader perspective, thereby avoiding missed prospects and potentially glaring omissions, while connecting more fully with the communities they serve.

Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, which just released “Working for Women: A Modern Agenda for Improving Women’s Lives,” said while 50 percent of the workforce is female, more can be done to eliminate barriers and more fully protect women, plus support lifestyle options.

“Most women are not working because they find their jobs intellectually stimulating,” she said. “They have bills that have to be paid.”

What’s needed is for government, businesses and policy-makers to support women in the workforce, whether they’re sole proprietors, executives, mid-level workers or in other positions.

“We want to encourage being able to customize a workplace to fit a person’s needs,” Schaeffer said, including the availability of jobs at various levels, opportunities for increased pay and advancement, reasonable fees for business owners, paid time off and such.

Licensed psychologist and executive coach Lubna Somjee, of the Women’s Leadership Alliance’s Concrete Ceiling event, where a panel of five professional women of color spoke about their career experiences, said while the “glass ceiling” refers to an invisible barrier that prevents women from moving up through the professional hierarchy, the “concrete ceiling” signifies the more formidable barrier that women of color face.

“It’s an issue that’s really persistent and pervasive but it’s quiet,” Somjee said.

Part of the problem, she said, is the lack of suitable mentorships and opportunities at the top, along with micro-aggressions against women of color, such questions about their credentials or authority, exclusions from colleagues’ networks and racist comments directed at them.

“Sometimes you see a company with a lot of diversity in terms of race, but not represented in the higher tier or management,” Somjee said.

Santana, who was one of the event’s panelists, said women are viewed differently than men are.

“With ambition, to anyone else, it becomes aggressive behavior, with passion to anyone else it becomes emotional,” she said. “With race, it increases barriers.”

More than that, issues affecting women of different races vary by the individual, including their geographic location, education level, socio-economic status and such.

“These are very nuanced issues,” Santana said. “We have to address them and peel back the multiple layers of the onion.”

“One of the first things we can do in the professional context is enroll male leaders into this fight,” she said. “This is not about women to be fought by women to change … it required males to say, ‘I recognize these women. More diversity will help us be better and stronger.’ ”

Businesses need to adopt policies that value their people by tying diversity into their goals and overall culture.

“When we teach young women to be empowered early, they group up seeing leadership, not as an anomaly, but as an expectation,” Santana said.

DeForest Howland, with the business development office of Ralph V. Ellis Insurance in Poughkeepsie, a sponsor of the Concrete Ceiling event, said as a service-oriented industry, it’s important for insurance agencies to connect with people of different backgrounds.”

“The workplace should reflect the community it’s serving,” he said.

Karla Jerry, a commercial insurance broker and account manager with Ralph V. Ellis Insurance, and a Concrete Ceiling panelist, said women of color need to educate themselves, project self-confidence and find support from colleagues and leaders in their industry.

Jerry, a U.S. immigrant who speaks with a Spanish accent and put herself through school, feels fully supported at her agency but sometimes has to contend with others’ biases.

“Some customers hear your accent and think you’re not smart enough,” she said. “That stereotyping is lasting. You have to prove yourself.”

Even so, her cultural background is a plus to many.

“I do have a lot of customers from Hispanic communities,” she said. “I have to speak with them, sometimes, in Spanish and that makes a difference.”

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Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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