How Can Employers Create Safe Spaces for Women & People of Color? [Interview]
Mikaela Kiner is an executive coach, entrepreneur, and HR consultant who recently authored the book Female Firebrands: Stories and Techniques to Ignite Change, Take Control, and Succeed in the Workplace, in which she interviewed thirteen successful, mission-driven women to learn about personal and professional obstacles they’d faced and how they stayed resilient.
We recently spoke with Mikaela about her book, the unique and harrowing experiences shared by women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in the workplace, and what employers must do to create a culture of inclusion that protects the rights of all their workers. This interview has been edited slightly for length.
Vault: Please tell us more about yourself.
Mikaela Kiner: I spent fifteen years practicing HR in large companies including Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon, then led HR at a couple of startups. I love the field, and was especially energized by the impact HR can have in a startup by establishing good leadership practices early on. That led me to launch Reverb, providing HR consulting services to startups and fast-growing companies.
My work is based on helping to create healthy, inclusive cultures that scale. As a business, one of Reverb’s core values is kindness. That’s something we look for in our team members, clients, partners, and suppliers. I’m fortunate to work with many mission-driven leaders and organizations.
At the same time I was leaving the corporate world to start Reverb, I had just completed my executive coaching certification at the Hudson Institute. Coaching is particularly rewarding because as a coach you get to watch others grow and develop before your eyes.
My first book, Female Firebrands, was published in January 2020. It is the playbook I wish I had throughout my own career - when I was interrupted, ignored, not promoted as fast as my male peers, etc. Writing the book gave me the chance to speak to and learn from successful women I admire who were kind enough to share their stories with me.
Vault: The term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous people of color) has been around for years. Although it is gaining more traction as the preferred term for many people within these groups, it is still relatively “new” to the wider conversation. To whom does BIPOC refer? How about QTBIPOC? When are these acronyms appropriate to use, and why are they gaining more visibility now?
MK: These terms are new to many of us in white households, and have gained traction and become increasingly visible in the media following the killing of George Floyd. BIPOC means Black, Indigenous People of Color. Before that, POC (People of Color) was commonly used to describe anyone who was not White/Caucasian. Following a series of police killings of Black women and men, conversations turned not only to racism but to anti-blackness specifically. When we group all People of Color together we fail to recognize the experiences, challenges, and stereotypes that vary widely between racial and ethnic groups. BIPOC can be used to recognize and reinforce rather than erase people’s different lived experiences.
QTBIPOC means Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Color and is important because historically the LGBTQIA+ movement has been largely dominated by white upper and middle-class gay and lesbian communities. QTBIPOC individuals are an example of intersectionality. In our society, they can be affected and disadvantaged by multiple types of oppression. It’s time we recognize the impact of these intersectional identities so that people can come together to share their experiences and challenges, and we can create systems and resources that encompass multiple identities that are more reflective of our human experience.
Vault: What inspired Female Firebrands? What did you set out to accomplish or discover when writing this book?
MK: Throughout my career, I've been frustrated by being ignored, excluded, targeted with inappropriate comments. Worse, I watched as the same things continued to happen to women around me. I want women to know their value, and learn to build the skills to stand up for themselves and each other. For mid-career women, stories in the book will remind them they’re not alone. Younger women can learn tips and techniques from the Firebrands, saving themselves years of heartache and frustration at work.
I chose to write about women I admire, who come from all backgrounds and walks of life. I wanted to speak to a diverse group of women because I knew that was the best way to include rich and varied perspectives—given my own perspective as a white, straight, cisgender woman. Every woman had stories that were both inspiring and heartbreaking, and while there were commonalities based on gender (every woman had a #MeToo story), there were things BIPOC women experienced that white women did not. I also knew that a diverse group of women would be most relatable to professional women of all backgrounds, and I hoped that every reader could see herself in the Firebrands' stories.
I wanted the book to be a practical guide, which is why I included checklists at the end of each chapter. When a woman experiences or witnesses something inappropriate I want her to have the tools to reflect on what’s happened, not blame herself, and to find her inner strength. There are even checklists for male advocates who want to support their female colleagues but often don’t know where to start.
Vault: Tell us more about the experiences shared by the women you interviewed in your book. Were there any major surprises—or revelations that were not so surprising?
MK: It was obvious to me that I should speak to a diverse group of women to learn about many experiences including those that are unlike my own. What surprised me when talking to BIPOC women was the extent to which they faced stereotypes and how this was a burden they faced on a daily basis. For instance:
Erin Jones is a black speaker, educator, and activist. When Erin was in the corporate world she never once dressed down for casual Friday; she said she could not risk giving up even an ounce of respect. Ruchika Tulshyan, who’s a Singaporean immigrant, did not want to share that hers was an arranged marriage. She was also conscientious about the kind of food she packed for lunch.
My friend and advisor Cheryl Ingram is a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant. Cheryl told me how as a Black woman she faces more vetting and scrutiny with potential clients than I could ever imagine. She described clients telling her what content to include and leave out of her presentations, requesting multiple meetings even after she’d proven herself, and demanding that she provide training and facilitation for free before they agreed to work together. Over time, Cheryl’s confidence increased, and she’s no longer willing to jump through all those hoops or let clients tell her how to do her job.
As a white woman, I experience privilege based on my skin color and oppression based on my gender. When I spoke to BIPOC women, I learned more about intersectionality and the many ways that their experiences differed from mine.
Vault: What did these conversations tell you about the barriers to success that marginalized groups face? How can employers apply these lessons to create a culture of true inclusion and ensure the safety of all their employees?
MK: Talking with the Firebrands deepened my understanding of intersectionality, and why it’s been difficult for all women to simply join forces. Too often, white women have gone ahead with their own agenda and left behind their BIPOC peers. This is one reason the 2017 Women’s March was dubbed the White Women’s March. When any person is in two or more underestimated groups, those identities are compounded. For example, white women have long discussed the glass ceiling, which is hard to shatter. But the concept of a "concrete ceiling" faced by BIPOC women, which you can not shatter, was new to me.
When I spoke to women and learned that they hide parts of themselves every day, that they do not feel safe or welcome to bring their whole, authentic self to work and have to alter their behavior daily to fit in, I was devastated. This points to the importance of education and building more inclusive practices at work. I would encourage employers to evaluate every part of the employee journey from interviewing to professional development and attrition, with a goal of removing bias. Lots of employers focus on diverse hiring but fail to invest in creating an inclusive culture. They don’t think about the experience of their new hires, whether or not people have a sense of belonging, or making sure all voices are heard.
Vault: Are there systems in place that prevent women from having honest dialogues about their experiences? What must employers—and society, for that matter—do to encourage and protect conversations like these?
MK: This is partly a generational problem. Many things were not talked about when I first joined the workforce or were discussed only behind closed doors. Younger generations are more insistent about bringing social justice conversations into the workplace. Leaders are learning there’s only a thin barrier between life inside and outside of work. Following the killing of George Floyd, for instance, employers spoke up internally and externally, provided safe spaces for Black employees, and reignited their efforts around inclusion and belonging in unprecedented ways. They recognized this was not merely a societal issue and that it was incumbent on them to take action.
Workplace systems created by and for white men have done little to embrace or empower women. They perpetuate female rivalry through a "one seat at the table" mentality and discourage people from sharing salary information. Today, women are starting their own grassroots efforts - whether that’s creating surveys to reveal patterns of harassment and discrimination to hold management accountable, or sharing salary data amongst themselves and helping each other negotiate pay increases and promotions.
Employers can sponsor Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) so that women and others who are underestimated can come together to support one another and ask for what they need. Understandably, people often do not feel comfortable raising issues and concerns at work. They worry about backlash and retaliation. One solution that’s increasing in popularity is to hire a third party ombud - a person or firm who can act as a confidential resource for employees seeking support with difficult or uncomfortable situations. Companies can also invest in spot coaching as a confidential, unbiased way to provide people with a helpful sounding board. The more safe spaces employers can create, the more likely people are to come together, speak up, and ask for what they need.
I’ve watched changes in societal conversations around gender through the eyes of my teenagers. My daughter, Sid, is now fifteen and I remember her coming home at age seven, telling me that they were studying gender stereotypes in her public elementary school. By middle school, they were talking about consent, and she had the opportunity to attend a global diversity summit with kids from all over the world. At fourteen, when Sid got unwanted advice from a young man at the gym, she told me he should stop mansplaining to her.
This is vocabulary we simply didn’t have at her age and I love it! Young people are influenced by exposure to movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and BLM. We’ve got to teach young girls their worth, and teach boys respect. Women visibly and vocally supporting other women is another shift we need to make.
Vault: Does intersectionality complicate the conversation around inclusion? In a culture that already places so many barriers for women, for people of color, for queer or trans folk, what are some of the unique challenges of belonging to more than one identity?
MK: Intersectionality is definitely more complicated but also more realistic. None of us are comprised of a single identity; rather we hold many identities including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and more. It’s only when we acknowledge intersectionality that we can begin to understand the various forms of oppression and privilege that individuals experience.
The risk when we talk about people as a single identity is that we oversimplify the challenges and oppression they face. We talked earlier about QTBIPOC individuals and the risk that if we pretend these are separate identities, it does not truly represent anyone. When we put each identity into its own box, we lose out on the beauty and complexity that each of us contains.
Vault: What advice do you have for women, BIPOC, or QTBIPOC with respect to staying resilient in the face of discrimination? What can be done at the individual level to ensure that one’s rights and safety are protected? What can white or male colleagues do?
MK: I recently did a talk on resilience with three of the Firebrands including Erin and Ruchika, and I learned a lot from them. QTBIPOC communities have been coming together to support one another - grieving together, marching together, and celebrating together. Finding communities of support locally or online means not having to face challenges alone. People can gain strength from one another. Everyone recharges and finds energy in different ways, so every individual should pay attention to what gives them energy and what drains them. Listen and trust yourself.
Recent events have certainly awoken many people in the majority to the need for allyship. One rule of being a good ally is to educate yourself - do not ask your QTBIPOC friends and colleagues to educate you about the oppression they face. Instead, take advantage of resources including books, articles, videos...there’s no shortage of information.
Allies must listen to and create space for QTBIPOC voices. They should be aware of the pain and anger many people are feeling right now. Amplify the voices and messages of your QTBIPOC friends, colleagues, and community leaders. You must make sure you are helping in the way that is most relevant and not simply in the way that’s most comfortable to you. Take a look at this video by Cheryl Ingram on 6 steps to allyship.
Vault: Many companies have publically renewed or declared their commitment to inclusion and pledged either time or money to the cause. What do you think we need to see in order to trust that statements like these are not just reactionary, but that there is a commitment to lasting, sustainable change?
MK: It’s been encouraging to see companies speaking up following the killing of George Floyd. Some leaders and brands have a history of speaking up on matters of social justice - think about Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, or Ben & Jerry’s, who have a history of social activism. Others are showing up this way for the first time.
When I see companies proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, I want to know if that message is pervasive not only in their marketing but also internally. Do their Black employees feel a sense of belonging? Did those companies create space for grieving and conversations following the killing of George Floyd and do they spend time and money on DEI efforts year-round? How do they show up in support of their local communities?
The risk is that some companies were inauthentically virtue signaling. Time will tell as companies either go back to business as usual or increase/reinvest in their DEI efforts.
Vault: Where do we go from here?
MK: These are surely the most tumultuous times most of us have lived through. My hope is that we can harness the energy we’re seeing around social justice, inclusion and belonging, and the role that CEOs and companies have in addressing these issues in the world. Individuals and organizations are leaning into and investing in DEI work like never before. The DEI consultants I know are fully booked through the end of the year. They are the same consultants who were told six months ago that there was no budget for DEI work.
We need to remember that systemic issues are not solved overnight. It’s up to all of us to make sure that this work persists, and that DEI efforts, support of QTBIPOC lives, and anti-racist work and learning continue to be a top priority in every aspect of our society.
Today racism pervades every corner of life in America - employment, education, our prison systems - it is inescapable. As we adults educate ourselves and become better allies, we must continue to educate and empower younger generations and activate them in order to effect lasting change.