Ain’t I a (Working) Woman? Women of Color On Changing the Narrative at Work

A conversation with change makers Aparna Rae and Sage Ke'alohilani Quiamno

I’ve heard Sojourner Truth’s story so many times, it replays in my mind as if it were a memory, as if somehow — through ancestral channels unknown, I was there watching it unfold in front of me just 168 years ago. At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Sojourner let out a crying refrain: Ain’t I a woman? Sojourner’s speech brought the room to task for the absence of an abolitionist movement within the fight for women’s rights. Without an insistent and intentional movement within this group to end slavery, just whose rights were women’s rights began to take form and unfortunately take hold.

This erasure of women of color — this question of whether women of color count as women too — stubbornly persists in our culture today. Do a Google image search on the word woman. Try it. Who do you see? Who do you not see? How many scrolls does it take for you to find someone like me? How about many someones like me? For all we have learned and shared to date, we as a country have collectively chosen to create no transformative solve for how we imagine and define a woman. “Ain’t I a woman?” is a question women of color continue to ask today, and many, instead of waiting for an answer, have gone on to create new questions all together on their own.

Future for Us is doing just that.

“What is the path for women of color to lead at the highest levels in all sectors?,” asks Future for Us, a Seattle-based community and career platform for women of color professionals. Through their programming and community engagement, Future for Us has convened thousands of professionals who are women of color, across industry, who have been waiting for a space dedicated to their experiences and growth. The likes of Forbes, Geekwire, The Seattle Times and others have taken notice of their work. And The Riveter has too. 

Built by women for everyone, The Riveter holds inclusion as one of its core values, and believes strongly that equity of opportunity in our lifetimes is impossible without everyone at the table. A table, by the way, designed to keep out the very people both The Riveter and Future for Us want to see at its head. It’s in the face of this that The Riveter and Future for Us have partnered on the State of Womxn of Color Roadshow. It’s an event series that brings data, storytelling and strategies about women of color to women of color and their allies, while creating both space and place for women of color to be seen, valued and supported as they thrive. 

I met founders Aparna Rae and Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno in my very first week at The Riveter as the new Sr. Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Fast-forward through countless white board sessions and conference calls, the State of Womxn of Color Roadshow is finally underway with an outstanding kickoff by Arlan Hamilton, Managing Partner of Backstage Capital. With two stops under our belts and five more to go, I wanted to pause and check in with Sage and Aparna about their work, ideas and reflections on the tour:

First, why “womxn” and not “women”?

The spelling of womxn is meant to show inclusion of trans, nonbinary, womxn of color, womxn with disabilities and all other marginalized genders. Both The Riveter and Future for Us use this spelling for this event series to indicate that our spaces and platform are open to anyone who identifies as such. We respect people of all genders, identities, and the use of pronouns that best identify an individual.

Future for Us focuses on women of color professionals. Why is this focus so needed? 

Sage & Aparna: The McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace report that gave us fuel to begin this journey. Their research found that “83 percent of Asian women, 80 percent of black women, and 76 percent of Latinas” are aiming for leadership roles in their companies, compared to just 75 percent of men and 68 percent of white women. Women of color are smart, ambitious and ready to lead. We’ve always known this, but we are often made to believe otherwise. 

Women of color have made incredible strides professionally, especially as entrepreneurs. Latina-owned businesses are the fastest-growing segment of the women-owned business market, and are starting up at six times the national average. 

Yet our earnings and net wealth pale in comparison to white women and men. By the end of our careers, our white peers have over $1 million more in wealth. Imagine everything that’s possible with a million dollars! 

We want to change the way work happens so that women of color find themselves on equal footing to their white peers, build generational wealth, and be a part of the innovation economy.

How is the work/office experience different for women of color, whether they’re mothers or not?

One of the most striking differences is in how women of color are perceived at work and how they engage personally at work. Women of color are the most likely to face workplace harassment, having their judgment questioned despite credentials or business acumen, and least likely to have access to senior leadership in companies. Women of color are also far more likely to remain in the individual contributor level than white men, which leads to where we are today, with women of color representing merely thre to four percent of the C-suite and corporate boards.

When it comes to interacting at work, women of color are reticent to bring their full selves to the workplace for fear of judgment or reprisals. Today in America, we now know that 21% of women of color do not think they can be themselves at work, and nearly 50% believe they must downplay their ethnicity to increase their chances of success at work. Women of color are still hiding their pregnancies and not talking about their personal lives. This takes an intensive emotional, mental and physical toll on women of color. 

And these are just the challenges early- and mid-career professionals face, often before they’ve become parents. As founders who aren’t (yet) parents, we learn about the challenges of mothers of color from our community of colleagues, family and friends. On top of that, we know the research and have been finding that the motherhood penalty for women of color is particularly cruel. The vast majority of women of color work in sectors that offer little to no paid family leave, so we find discrimination rampant. Corporate America is doing slightly better: Longer paid leave and flexible back-to-work programs are making it more possible for more women to rise in their careers. 

When people discuss the wage gap, they often refer to the $0.80 women on average make for every dollar a white man makes. We know that this masks the drastic pay gap that exists for most women of color. For example, Latina/x women make on average $0.53 for every dollar a white man makes. How should we continue to highlight and center the racial gender pay gap?

The gender and racial wage gap is a tricky construct. On one hand, it highlights the huge disparity in pay, and on the other, it downplays what’s happening in the overall opportunity landscape. We stand behind and applaud every company that closes their internal pay gap. However, are they closing the opportunity and access gap from recruitment, retention and on to promotions? If we are going to highlight the racial gender pay gap, it is imperative that we highlight it alongside the opportunity gap. 

How do we move the needle on the state of women of color in work?

  • Acknowledge the women that came before you.
  • Ensure that access to resources is equitable across your team.
  • Create policies that make it possible for everyone to thrive.
  • Acknowledge your privilege, bias and blind spots.
  • Be an active ally, no matter who you are.

What have you learned so far from the Los Angeles and Austin stops on the tour?

We’ve noted three themes thus far:

  1. Bold, courageous women of color leaders are in every city pushing for change. We’ve met incredible leaders like Pooja Philips in Los Angeles, who’s making bras out of recycled plastic, and Janice Omadeke in Austin, who is empowering underrepresented tech talent to learn to lead with confidence, by connecting future leaders to career mentors. 
  2. There is a need for cross-sector collaborations. Powerhouse women of color and allies across industries must get to know each other.
  3. We need data to drive advocacy and the development of resources that are right for women of color, built in collaboration with women of color. There is power in knowing the numbers, and we need to be aware of the state of women of color to begin to shape the solutions.

What have been some of the most powerful moments from the tour so far? 

By far the most powerful moment so far came from Arlan Hamilton. She said, “once you understand your value, mediocrity is no longer an option.” Those words had a huge impact on our Los Angeles audience. Also, we love watching women enthusiastically connect and even head out to drinks and dinner with essentially strangers after the events. Women of color are so busy being excellent at work, home and in the community, that they forget to make room for new connections. Being a catalyst for new connections makes us feel like we’re accomplishing what we set out to do. 

What can people expect from the tour dates to come?

Connection, collaboration and community,  along with candid conversations with phenomenal leaders in Dallas (9/26), Denver (10/1), Portland (10/11), Minneapolis (10/24) and Seattle (11/8). This tour is equally focused on building community and building solutions. At each stop, we are lucky to bring onstage leaders who are pushing the edge, and grounding the audience in how to move forward. See you on the tour!