Addressing the Triple Whammy
Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to finally read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. Since its release at the end of 2018, Becoming has become (no pun intended!) one of the bestselling books of the last ten years.
Reading Obama’s memoir, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience as a woman of color with big ambitions. My childhood was similar to hers: I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in one of the poorest parts of London. Yet I was an ambitious young woman, striving (and still striving) to make an impact and to live a better life. I managed to get myself into the University of Cambridge, and since graduating, have held numerous roles in finance, most recently in private equity.
However, Becoming stirred me to think about the so called triple whammy: what it means to be a woman of color from a less affluent background. I believe this is a particularly important topic today, given how society has become increasingly divided across numerous lines. It also made me think about what needs to be done to change this experience for women of color.
The Lean In Organization, a nonprofit and global community founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, has shown that on average, black women in the U.S. are paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women. This statistic is even more startling, given that black women are more likely to be sole breadwinners in their households. In addition, 1 in 3 Americans are not aware of the pay gap between black women and white men. And half of Americans are not aware of the pay gap between black women and white women. Clearly, the triple whammy is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Personally, I think addressing the issues faced by women of color will require a multi-pronged approach. Most importantly, it will require organizations and these communities to work together. Some of these solutions are already being implemented. Many organizations are now realizing that diverse companies and workforces lead to higher profits and shareholder returns. As a result, corporations like Goldman Sachs and Google have launched diversity programs that focus on hiring more women of color.
That said, these corporations can do and should do more. The data shows that entry-level positions are less of an issue. A far bigger issue is the lack of black women in senior roles. This is a cause for concern, given that you can’t be what you don’t see.
For example, in Facebook’s 2018 diversity report, the number of black women who worked as senior managers or executives in the U.S. can nearly be counted on one hand (that’s right, there were six women). These women account for less than 1% of the jobs in that job category. Numbers for Hispanic women are equally bleak.
Women of color cannot wait for organizations to act and address this dilemma. We must be impatient. We must focus more on what can be changed and less on what cannot. Skin color, gender, ethnicity, birthplace, parents, and childhood circumstances cannot be changed. We must acknowledge that we will face challenges, but simultaneously, we must have a laser focus on what we can do to elevate ourselves.
And this is what I find particularly enlightening about Becoming. It’s a story of ambition, hard work, resilience, and belief in one’s capabilities. Michelle Obama rightly highlights the uncomfortable realities of being a woman of color, but by sharing her story, she also shares a story of hopes and dreams. And her story is a perpetual reminder that it can be done.
As the philosopher Epictetus once said, “Remember that you are an actor in a play determined by the author: if short, then short; if long, then long. If he wants you to act as a beggar, then act even that with excellence, just as a cripple, a ruler, or a citizen. Because that is your objective: to act the role that is given to you well. To select the role is up to someone else.”
And so I dare you to control what you can control. Work hard. Be courageous. Be confident (and if you can’t do that, at least fake it till you make it!). Be honest. Act with integrity. Mentor young women. And never let the conditions that formed your childhood shape your future. Becoming is a call to all women of color to be the alchemist of their own lives. I dare you to address the triple whammy head on, and turn the lead into gold.