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The Scholarly Kitchen | On Being a Leader Who Happens to Be a Woman of Color: A Conversation with Salina Gray, Raquel Tamez, and Rochelle Williams
The lack of diversity at the top of pretty much every profession is well-documented, and scholarly communications is no exception. Compared with the number of women who work in our community overall, there are woefully few leaders, while people of color are very under-represented at all levels. Women of color who are leaders are even more of a rarity.
Let’s start by finding out a little about each of you — your background, your journey to being a leader, and your current position.
Dr. Rochelle L Williams: Being a leader was never the goal, only using my engineering skills to solve problems and positively impact my community. After completing my doctoral studies and determining that a tenure-track life wasn’t for me, I started my professional career at ABET headquarters in Baltimore, MD. Over the course of my five years there, I was promoted three times, going from a manager to the director of the department. I learned the value of working smarter, not harder, and other foundational leadership skills. I transitioned from working in a silo to working across departments, learned how to work with external consultants all over the country, and most importantly, how to [not] build trust among teams. But it was during my time at Prairie View A&M University when I worked with then Provost, Felecia M. Nave, that I learned what it meant to be a courageous leader dedicated to addressing systems that compromise change efforts. Today, I am the Co-Principal Investigator and Program Director of the ADVANCE Resource and Coordination (ARC) Network at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Washington, DC. This effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners dedicated to achieving gender equity for faculty in higher education science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. It’s an exciting opportunity that allows me to lead a national initiative that requires engaging a diverse group of stakeholders committed to equity in STEM.
Can you tell us about a time that you believe bias, subtle or otherwise, was at play at work?
Rochelle: I’ve witnessed affinity bias decimate an organization’s culture and serve as the catalyst for losing top talent. Affinity bias in the workplace can show up when leaders select team members that are “like me” or “make me feel comfortable.” In this case, when a top leader’s affinity towards one department continuously went unchecked, a negative power dynamic was introduced into the culture. On one hand, staff members quickly learned there were consequences for offering contrasting opinions to this department and, as time went by, this affected morale and retention. On the other hand, the department perceived that their relationship with the top leader generated power over all other staff members.
How do you handle perceived/actual bias?
Rochelle: I love how Iyanla Vanzant always says, “call a thing a thing,” and that’s what I do when handling perceived/actual bias. However, pairing that directness with the Four Agreements – Don’t Take Anything Personally; Don’t Make Assumptions; Be Impeccable with Your Word; and Always Do Your Best – has helped me confront bias in a constructive and generative manner. I remind myself that someone else’s bias is less about me and more about who they think I am or who I remind them of. From there, after assessing both my physical safety and the well-being of my mental health, I determine if I will address the bias in that moment or at a later time.
To keep myself from making assumptions about the situation, I ask, “Can you tell me more about what you meant when you said…”
With this clarity, I’ve found that this makes it easier for me to have these difficult conversations based on facts. Not working from a place of assumption is the difference between having a confrontation and a teachable moment.
Did you — or do you — have a mentor and, if so, was it difficult to find someone who understood your views as a woman of color?
Rochelle: I am very fortunate to have three mentors who are invested in the growth of distinctive aspects of my life. However, hitting the mentor trifecta didn’t come without lessons on self-advocacy and self-awareness. Sadly, one of my early-on developmental relationships was short-lived because of the mentor’s refusal to acknowledge his own biases and his constant rejection of my attempts to educate him on his actions. From that situation, I learned that it was just as important that the mentor value my blackness, my womanhood, and my cultural upbringing as much as they value my professional growth.
Do you think mentoring is a good way to help more women of color to become leaders? What other approaches have you found that work?
Rochelle: Absolutely, mentoring will always be an essential path to learning and career growth. But organizations must evolve from tactics that focus on “fixing the women” to inclusive practices that center on “fixing the system.” Instead of only developing initiatives that target women of color or other traditionally marginalized identities, evaluate your organization’s culture to determine what barriers are impeding their promotion in the first place. If organizations are sincere about promoting equitable work environments, they will be intentional about continuously improving their policies and practices and measuring their effectiveness through an intersectional lens.
What would you tell your younger self just entering the workforce?
Rochelle: If you don’t define yourself for yourself, you will be crunched into other people’s fantasies for you and eaten alive [Audre Lorde]. Be your authentic self, love your authentic self, and give your authentic self to the world, everyday.
What do you hope Scholarly Kitchen readers will take away from this post?
Rochelle: Promote women of color. Pay women of color. And use your privilege to challenge systems that impede the full participation of women of color in your organizations.
Rochelle L. Williams, PhD, is the Project Director for the ADVANCE Resource Coordination (ARC) Network for AWIS. The ARC Network has a primary focus on organizational and institutional systemic change from both the research and practical perspectives and aims to share and translate tools needed for change, remove barriers to resources, reduce duplication of equity and systemic change efforts, and curate, recover, and synthesize the body of knowledge on systemic change. Before joining AWIS, Rochelle served as a Research Scientist in the Office for Academic Affairs at Prairie View A&M University. Since 2012, Rochelle has worked as a subject-matter expert for the National Science Foundation on issues about cultures of inclusion, broadening participation, and university education programs. Rochelle received her Bachelor of Science in physics from Spelman College and both her Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering and PhD in Science and Mathematics Education from Southern University and A&M College.