I don’t feel like talking about diversity in the workplace this week.
I’m not upset. Nothing happened. I did some good work this week, and physically I feel fine. I just don’t feel like explaining anything that – to me – should be perfectly obvious, but for one reason or another, isn’t. I’m tired of it.
But I will, I am, and it’s all because of Edith Cooper.
I ran across this article she wrote last month on Linkedin and was instantly inspired. I was soothed, honestly, because this highly successful black woman was writing about things I could personally relate to. She understands my struggles as a working woman, and every now and then you just need that, you know?
Now, Cooper is a big wig, a seasoned, successful executive, who’s spent the past 30 some years climbing the ranks at high-brow financial institutions to reach her current position as executive vice president and global head of human capital management for Goldman Sachs.
She’s also black, and she understands racism from personal experience. Her parents grew up in the segregated South, and she knows what it feels like to be mistaken for the coat check girl at her son’s school and to be asked to serve coffee at a client meeting she came to run. In her recent article on LinkedIn she talks openly about having to constantly explain her credentials when no one else had to, of being asked what country she’s from – she grew up in Brooklyn – and this one made me roll my eyes hard – having someone suggest that she’s not “black black.” Likely because as a Harvard-educated career leader she doesn’t fit the stereotypical image many people have of what a black woman looks like or could be.
But what struck me about Cooper is her stance on race in the workplace – she actively wants to talk about it. I wouldn’t have expected it from someone at her level at a company like Goldman Sachs, but that’s what happens when you make assumptions, right? People surprise you, sometimes in the best way. In a video embedded in the article she talks about an event her company held in response to some of the things that have made headlines in recent months. The black partners in the firm got together with the CEO and Chairman to have a conversation about their experiences, and she said the turn out took her breath away. It made her realize that “now is the time for the conversation.”
She echoed so many things that I say in this blog, that I say to anyone who asks me about race or gender or any other dimension of diversity and how to handle those tough conversations. For instance, “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Cooper said the answer to that discomfort that tends to rise whenever anyone says something the least bit controversial or draws attention to something others consider to be “out of the box” – which most discussions of diversity are – is not silence. It’s engagement.
She offered this practical advice for me and for anyone interested in advancing workplace diversity:
- Engage in this dialogue; don’t be silent
- Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be tempered by the simplest acts most of us learned as children: listen well, choose your words with care and respect others
- Focusing on our differences is easy and divisive; leveraging what we have in common is harder, but will effect positive change for all
She also talked about how the diversity conversation at Goldman had to go beyond the need for mentoring and coaching. They’re important, but so is the fact that people need to understand – unconscious bias is real; it affects us all. “The only way we can get comfortable with other people’s differences, is to get in that conversation, to explore the difference,” Cooper said.
She talked about feeling a sense of responsibility to share her experiences in an effort to advance the dialogue around diversity. I’m intimately aware of that sense of obligation; when I’m in one of my, what’s-the-point-of-it-all moods, it’s what keeps this blog going, my compulsion to add to that discussion.
She will probably never read this post, but thank you, Edith Cooper. Thank you for sharing honestly, and for offering this diversity blogger encouragement when my spirits were flagging.