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  • Women of Color Share their Stories

    On May 12th, the Women's Leadership Alliance hosted a panel discussion to discuss the challenges of the "Concrete Ceiling." Everyone is familiar with the "Glass Ceiling," the barrier that represents challenges women face in the workplace. A Concrete Ceiling is far more difficult to break through and what symbolizes the challenge that women of color face in the workplace.
    The audience of about 60 to 70 was immediately engaged as Moderator Lisa Ghartey, Assistant Commissioner, Child Welfare and Community Services, New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), and the five women panelists shared their stories.
    Jen Brown is of African-American descent. After attending Dartmouth and University of Chicago Law School, she thought she'd proven she was worthy of any challenge. When she'd been passed over for a promotion twice to white men, she filed a complaint with the EEOC. Three months later she was fired. She ultimately won her case and relocated to Poughkeepsie to help others who have faced discrimination on the job.
    "I'm frequently the only one in the room with these features," she said pointing to her face. Sarah Lee is of Asian heritage. As Chief Executive Officer of the Dutchess County Local Development Corporation and the Dutchess County Industrial Development Agency she works with the predominantly white male business community.
    Cindy Smith is from the Bronx—she doesn't mince words. As a young CPA and a woman of color, she worked in accounting firms who didn't value her skills. So, she took her career into her own hands and opened up a private practice. "Keep learning, work hard, always do your best," she offered as advice. 
    Karla Jerry came to this country as a young girl and didn't speak a word of English. An insurance company gave her a secretarial job and she's been working in the industry ever since. Now she's Manager of Commercial Real Estate at Ralph V. Ellis Insurance Agency. "You have to show people that you do know what you're talking about, that you are an expert, even though you have an accent."
    Mecca Santana is used to talking about challenges people—particularly women—of color face in the workplace. A woman of color herself, she's currently VP of Diversity and Community Relations, Westchester Medical Center. Previously she served as Chief Diversity Officer for the State of New York and before that as Executive Director of Equal Employment Opportunity & Diversity Management for the Office of Equal Opportunity at the New York City Department of Education. "I'm not passive-aggressive. I'm aggressive-aggressive. And, I make no apologies for it. My attitude is they're lucky to have me." Mecca also pointed out that diversity is good for the bottom line. Companies who embrace the diversity in their own communities in their hiring policies tend to be better places to work.
    As the evening progressed, the discussion extended to the audience with many women sharing their own challenges. Moderator Ghartey closed the evening with a call for action, "Clearly, this issue is something we all need to recognize and address. We implore you to take action in your workplace. Stand up for those who are being discriminated against—for any reason. We invite you to help us find ways to continue this conversation." We need to recognize microaggressions—subtle demeaning messages or offensive acts towards people of color—and address them honestly and openly. Though the evening inside came to a close, many lingered outside until after dark.
    If you are interested in this topic, or other women’s leadership topics, and would like more information or to join the Women’s Leadership Alliance, please contact Molly Ahearn, Chair of the Women's Leadership Alliance at molly@fulldeckdesign.com.
    This event was free and open to the public, thanks to generous sponsors Omega Women's Leadership Center and Cindy M. Smith, CPA P.C., Ralph V. Ellis Insurance and the Southern Dutchess NAAC

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