Yes, we are still here!

By Jill Mari Emery: CEO Balance Innovation

Recently, I had a first. When I say first, I am referring to the first almost comical (yet horrifying), professional, the majority would see as blatant, “ism” in my professional career. What is interesting to me about it is that the person delivering this initial statement had no idea there was anything wrong with it. What was disturbing, the most, to me, was that she is an assistant professor at a large university.

The scenario: It was a Teams meeting. I had joined early,  but had not turned on my camera. I often work while waiting for people to join, using my monitor, with the laptop (camera), lowered. When the interviewee joined, I turned on my camera. The first words out of her mouth:

Oh My! You look Like at

For those too young to know who Buckwheat is, a clip to a Little Rascals Video.

My first instinct was to check my hair. I had it, almost daily, pulled back bun, but I wanted to make sure that it was smooth. It was. Therefore, the only thing I could conclude was that what her exclamation translated to was:

OH MY! You’re black!

To add to this situation, her response to my confused look she said, “It’s Okay”.

I will remind you I was interviewing her. Yet she was “okay” with me “looking like Buckwheat”.  And no, I did not hang up on her. I continued the interview. At one point, after listening to her simplistic descriptions of what she did for her research, I had to tell her, “I’m an engineer”.  And her response, “Oh, then you understand technical terms”.

I know several people that would have hung up on her. Others that would have cussed her out. I concluded the interview, politely. She will, of course, not be working for me. But sadly, does work for someone, as do many others that think like her.  This is not the first time i  have seen the look of surprise, upon seeing my face on camera or walking into a meeting/interview. Most know not to vocalize their surprise (never pleasant). None have hidden their assumption that I therefore can’t know what they would have expected me to know, prior to seeing my face.  In the big picture, what this translates to me is, “you do not fit” or other such assumptions. To name a few  (some of which have been vocalized to me):

We are very family oriented, so we do not think you will fit in our organization

I am not sure how the guys will take to reporting to you

You can’t possibly be qualified for this position

You are not smart enough for this roll.

You are the sales/marketing person or g/administrative assistant

The bar must have been lowered for you

We will be able to find a development company that is better qualified.

“We can find a development team that is better qualified”

The list goes on. And although most Americans think this mindset has left our country, it has not. This is especially true in the STEM professions. There are still retention issues for those entering STEM programs in academia and for those entering careers in STEM  for those that look like me. In reading the articles, studies and listening to those interested in change, there still seems to be a gap in understanding of the cause of the lack of retention.

The woman interviewed is a professor. She teaches at a university level at a state university. If she has the reaction she did with me, the person that is responsible for hiring her,  how does she react to her students that look like me? There are also others that may not vocalize, but internalize their reactions and mindsets. What this woman was unable to do, besides applying a filter to her reaction to seeing me, was also hide her perception of what my being black meant to her. Often times, it is not the vocalization that is the critical factor, but the perceptions and how they play out. Professors/employers/managers/co-workers, may be invisible in their organization to those that seek change. But they are not invisible to those that look like me.

Unfortunately, for those of us that do enter STEM professions and encounter negative attitudes, there is little we can do. Going to HR is rarely the answer. They are the protectors of the company, and fear lawsuits. In addition, if you do go to HR their reaction is often to find a way to get rid of the complainer. The offenses we experience are often subtle. It is not the “you look like Buckwheat” but the perceptions and how they play out that are the issues. Lawsuits are also not helpful. There is rarely solid evidence of discrimination. He said she said abound. Circumstantial evidence is often all there is. And the subtleties of the situations provide no proof, which is required. Usually, the only time lawsuits go anywhere is if there are several employees experiencing it from the same source, they have all filed complaints and no action was taken. The other issue with lawsuits is that if an employee files one, they run a risk of being blackballed, thus limiting their career.

There have been many organizations that I have worked for in which I was treated as a competent engineer. In others, I have had bad experiences, and sometimes horrible ones. I have had issues with managers, when one has left and another hired to replace him.   I have had issues with those that are supposed to report to me.  I have had issues with peers.  My experience has taught me that if there are issues, I will be the one to go.  I have been asked by friends and family, “why do you want to stay”. My answers revolve around, how long before the next job or will it be a better situation.

I don’t have a solution.  Well, Balance Innovation Center.  But for the companies that are making efforts, but still find they have a retention problem. I do not. The CEO cannot control the minds of all of their employees. I don’t think people can be fired for most of the subtle behaviors that are the displays of perception. When the behavior happens in front of others, my experience is that no one says a word, and a manager may notice but does nothing about it. Why, I don’t know. But that is my experience. So, I got nothing. What I do know is that I love what I do and believe that I am very good at it. I know that there are many that I have worked with that agree.

Since this interview, I did learn that the university does have diversity training, but it is voluntary  I am not sure how many people “volunteer” for this. It would seem to me that those that are not interested in diversity would not attend, those that need it but don’t know they do, would not attend, so that leaves those that don’t need it (not sure who that is) and those that don’t need it and yet think they do.  There are those that are wanting change and may need it, that attend because they want to do better, but how many people is that? Therefore, this training may have little impact in providing an environment conducive to a healthy, diverse environment. We must do better as a society.