“There are not a lot of people who look like me.”Women, Business, and Diversity
By Erin Elaine Casey
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In early July, in a bright and modern room in the new Margaret Norrie McCain Centre at Mount Saint Vincent, a small group of Black and immigrant women business owners and Centre for Women in Business staff members gathered to talk about diversity and inclusion in our ranks.
I was in the room that night because I wanted to learn about the specific challenges faced by immigrant and Black women in business in Nova Scotia. Below is a small sample of what I heard.
“When I go to events, everybody knows my name, because for a year I was the only Black person in the room.”
“Having someone see me and make 10,000 judgements based on how I look is exhausting. People question whether I have ideas, am articulate and educated.”
“When I talk to people about the challenges faced by Black and immigrant women, they say, ‘Show me the evidence.’ But we know it from experience. It’s real.”
“New clients don’t expect me to be Black or an immigrant.”
“I was very confident when I came to Canada, but now that I have a business my accent leads to assumptions that I am not educated and my confidence suffers. I wonder if I should hire someone to answer the phone for me.”
“Sheer determination is keeping many of us going.”
Full disclosure: I am an average woman business owner, and an average member of the CWB. I am middle-class, middle-aged, and middle-income. I am white. I was born here, and so were many generations of my family before me. I face the usual problems that most working women still face in 2015: Caring for children, negotiating equal responsibilities at home, and keeping my confidence up while trying to get ahead in a world that still favours the success and advancement of men.
It’s easy to start a sentence with, “Women are…”, “Women do…”, or, “Women need…” But women don’t all speak with the same voice and from the same experience. Yes, we have a lot in common, and that’s a place to start. But some women experience oppression in ways that I cannot comprehend – ways I will never contend with myself.
According to the Pay Equity Commission of Canada, women in this country earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by a man. But did you know that Black women earn 40 per cent less than white men do? Or that visible minority women working full-time earn on average $4000 less per year than non-visible minority women?
Here’s a callout to you older women reading this, those of you who’ve been in the workforce for more than twenty-five years: Do you remember times you walked into networking events to find yourself the only woman in the room? Do you remember when only men could join service clubs like Rotary? Did you ever feel isolated, lonely, even intimidated in a professional environment?
So imagine you’re not just a woman in a roomful of men. Imagine you’re the only woman in the room wearing a hijab. Imagine you’re a Black woman in a room full of white people. Imagine you go to a networking event and nobody approaches you to talk.
How would you feel? You might, like some of the women I met that night, feel like pushing forward with all your might, educating as you go. Or you might, like others, feel overwhelmed and exhausted. You’d likely feel a bit of both.
We need to look at ourselves – all of us – and be a little more honest about the intersections of privilege and oppression that affect our daily lives and the way we do business. As one woman in the room that night put it, “In so many implicit ways, people like to do business with people who are like them.”
Don’t kid yourself. Representation matters. That’s why the CWB exists, so that women business owners can SEE themselves in the roles they aspire to and access the help they need to get there.
But what happens when you don’t see yourself represented in the ranks? When you have to explain, perhaps over and over again, your experience of challenge, isolation, even racism?
Let’s make room for honest conversations among women – African Nova Scotian, Black, white, immigrant – women of all colours, cultures, and classes. This means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, getting over our fear of saying the wrong thing, and forgiving each other for sometimes not knowing what to say.
I often end a blog post with some kind of call to action, but this time it isn’t my call to make. Instead, I’m asking the CWB membership – and women business owners everywhere – to listen. Listen to the women of colour and culture around you. Believe them. Include them. Do business with them. Be an ally.
It’s easy to think that an issue like this does not affect you directly, but the advancement of all women, not just some women, matters to all of us.
Erin Elaine Casey is a professional writer, editor, and writing coach.