Breaking the Concrete Ceiling

When people talk about the "glass ceiling," they're talking about the barriers women face when trying to reach higher positions in the workplace — but for women of color, the ceiling isn't made of glass, but of concrete.

Utah is ranked last in the nation for equality of women in the workforce in terms of employment rates, pay, and representation in senior leadership. In this episode we hear about the discrimination women of color face in the workplace and the barriers they face while trying to find a work environment in which they can not only thrive, but feel safe and be listened to. We also look at some ways companies and organizations can create more equitable work environments that support and advance women of color.

In this episode we speak with Natalie Pinkney about the discrimination women of color experience in the workplace and the barriers they face while trying to find a work environment in which they can not only thrive, but feel safe and be listened to.


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Episode Transcript

[MUSIC]

ANDREA Smardon: Welcome to More Than Half. I’m Andrea Smardon. Today on the program, we're going to hear about one woman's experience with racism and discrimination in the workplace.

Natalie Pinkney: If you're a white woman, it's sexism and if you are a woman of color, it's both racism and sexism.

ANDREA: We're going to look at ways that companies can create more equitable work environments that support and advance women of color. In 2020, Utah was ranked last in the nation for equality of women in the workforce.

[MUISC STOPS]

Natalie: That's just how we socialize women is that you should take what you're given and you should be happy for it.

ANDREA: Natalie Pinkney is the first Black woman and youngest person to be elected to the South Salt Lake City Council. A seat she won in 2020 after completing her graduate degree in educational leadership and policy from the University of Utah. All before the age of 26. She was also getting noticed in the corporate world. After graduating, a successful Utah-based company, reached out to her on LinkedIn about applying for a job.

[MUISC]

Natalie: When people are reaching out to you, you're like, "Oh my God, this is it. This is my breakthrough." That was the first time for me to actually get that manager experience.

ANDREA: She soon began to notice some troubling things about the work environment.

Natalie: Of the black women that were there, they left very quickly. The women weren't always spoken to. Again, majority of the senior managers were all white men.

ANDREA: The environment was toxic.

Natalie: People would scream at each other. I wasn't screaming. If anything, I was more relaxed than most folks. So you're thinking, "Okay, but these were white men who were screaming at each other and they had that ability to."

ANDREA: After she worked up her courage, she tried stepping more into her role as a manager, but was quickly reprimanded.

Natalie: That's when I notice, everyone else can act like a manager, but you can't act like a manager.

ANDREA: Natalie says, when she tried speaking up about what she was experiencing, she was told she had a bad attitude.

[MUSIC STOPS]

Natalie: My attitude now made me on an improvement plan. It was one of those things where it was like, "Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut." It's very exhausting and debilitating.

ANDREA: She noticed that the people who are being supported and listened to had one thing in common, they were white.

Natalie: We want you to come into this role. We want you to be a leader and then you give your opinion, and then all of a sudden it's "Okay, I'm being reprimanded." The counterpart, you can have a male who is less experienced than you has a bad temper and is getting promoted.

ANDREA: A recent measurement from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that nationally, white women hold 38% of management positions at companies. That the number drops to 3% for black women. Natalie, worried if she left the company, it would jeopardize her career and that it would reflect negatively throughout her business network.

Natalie: I don't know it's debilitating, because then that's something where it's like, "Okay, if I'm interviewing for jobs, how do I explain this to a job?" Because then they're going to think there's something wrong with you. It puts you in this stuff position where women aren't able to advance.

ANDREA: Natalie says this feeling of being trapped with no way around the discrimination is a dilemma, many women of color in corporate America face.

Natalie: It was just like, "Okay, well there's no Goldilocks situation here." Then you're like, "Well, I'm stuck here. I'm going to try not to be fired in this position."

ANDREA: Many women of color have to escape toxic environments, but Natalie calls an exit plan. The constant job hopping is not only exhausting, but seen as a red flag in job interviews. Natalie has found for men, it's the opposite.

Natalie: I'm interacting with people, specifically white men who job hop every three months, every six months. They never get a question about job hopping. That's really frustrating because you see right there just some really foundational differences. Then you could go to a place that's even more debilitating, more racist. Your livelihood could be even worse.

ANDREA: Part of the racism Natalie and other women of color experience at work comes in the form of microaggressions, which are naive or ignorant remarks about a person's race or culture. They can intentionally or unintentionally imply the person is different and inferior.

Natalie: When you first have a microaggression, it's that like, "Did that happen or maybe I'm just over-reading it?" Then over and over again, it becomes exhausting.

ANDREA: Because microaggressions are so subtle and so pervasive, Natalie says it can feel like you're constantly on guard in the workplace. That you are continually reminded you don't belong and aren't safe.

Natalie: Sometimes you have to preserve yourself because it just becomes the world is happening and you have no control.

ANDREA:

Natalie says you have to learn to interpret words like professional. When employers are actually talking about the way black women wear their hair.

Natalie: Professionalism is a very whiteness term. When I even thinking about interviewing for a job, I didn't know if it was okay to wear braids in my hair or twists in my hair because that can be seen as unprofessional.

ANDREA: Cumulatively, microaggressions can become traumatizing affecting not just a person's emotional health and confidence, but can have chronic effects on their physical health.

Natalie: You just can't smile your way through a microaggression. That's how folks think about you. Maybe it's not conscious, but I think because it's subconscious and it's so much more natural, I think that hurts a little bit more.

[MUSIC]

ANDREA: What Natalie was up against like so many other women of color in the workforce is called the concrete ceiling.

Natalie: A lot of people talk about shattering the glass ceiling and a glass ceiling, you can see through it. You can see the corner office, you can see the promotion. Concrete ceiling, you can't see the next step. For women of color barriers are just so much larger, so to speak.

[MUSIC STOPS]

ANDREA: The concrete ceiling is composed of layers upon layers of discrimination and racism. Natalie says that breaking through it is nearly impossible and that many women don't even see an opportunity to crack it.

Natalie: It's impossible for me to do it on my own. I'm going to have to get this army of people. Then I'm going to have to trust all these people. I hope together we can break this concrete ceiling. That's a lot to put on women of color.

ANDREA: Some of the ways she navigated discrimination was by securing support networks within the company. One tactic is finding a sponsor. The concept of a sponsor is different from a mentor or advisor.

Natalie: Your sponsor is only talking about how you are great behind closed doors if they're in a meeting with top executives, they're like, "Natalie's awesome. No, we should consider her. We should take a chance on her."

ANDREA: Natalie says building a support network is a lot of work and isn't always guaranteed to secure an equitable work environment for women of color.

Natalie: How do I not only depend on a white voice because if you're depending on someone else, they can always change their mind. I've been in that position before where I had a great sponsor, and then all of a sudden I didn't.

ANDREA: In these attempts, securing support and sponsorship places the responsibility of fixing inequitable work environments on women of color.

Natalie: It's always on you to find your sponsor and cross your fingers that they're talking well about you. I think what we're really trying to get to is this place oof equity.

ANDREA: Natalie says that experiencing the concrete ceiling and realizing that it's because of the color of her skin led to a feeling of despair and diminished any hope of being treated equally.

[MUSIC]

Natalie: There's a lot of moments in my life where I reflect and it's like, "Oh, the only logical explanation for this is because of who my identity." That's really heartbreaking because who wants to come to that thought? Nobody wants to come to that they've been reduced to that.

ANDREA: The concrete ceiling is part of the intersectionality women of color face in the workforce. Intersectionality, a term coined by UCLA Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw asserts that a person is disadvantaged by multiple sources of discrimination and racism. Identities such as woman and black can't exist independently of each other when understanding the oppression and prejudice the person faces.

[MUSIC STOPS]

Natalie: Growing up a lot of times, you are thinking that everyone's on the same playing field. You're working really hard and then it takes you a minute to realize that, "Oh, now I understand some things a better in my experience."

ANDREA: At one company where she was the only black woman manager, Natalie learned firsthand about intersectionality. She experienced discrimination and racism within the first week on the job. She thought she would get support from another woman.

Natalie: I felt really comfortable that one of the C-suite executives was a woman. She was a white woman, but it was a woman.

ANDREA: When she approached a woman executive about the discrimination she was experiencing, Natalie assumed together they could address the issue head on.

Natalie: That she would be a champion that this would be maybe a good dialogue conversation, but it was really her putting me in my place. I just remember being outside our office, just listening to her. It was really clear that she had earned her spot at the boys club and I wasn't going to take it away from her.

[MUSIC]

Natalie: In that moment, I understood that I just wasn't granted the same ability as everyone else. I just remember how horrible that was.

ANDREA:

Today, many companies are looking to address discrimination and racism within their work environments. A common first approach is making a diversity equity and inclusion commitment. These are known as DEI statements. In our interview, Natalie asked an important question about organizations that make these statements and goals.

[MUSIC STOPS]

Natalie: Maybe a company or organization wants diversity, but does diversity want you?

ANDREA: One commonly used tool in reaching equity is the use of hiring quotas. Quotas are used to increase diversity by requiring that a percentage of new hires be from a racial background other than white. Well, quotas have been shown to make some improvements in diversity. It doesn't address the root problems many corporations have with DEI.

ANDREA: Natalie says that for women of color who experienced hiring quotas, it often feels like the company is putting a bandaid over a gaping wound. She experienced this when she was applying for a corporate job.

Natalie: When I was interviewing, they talked about, "Well, right now we're hiring a lot of people of color, especially women of color." I was like, "I know that's supposed to make me feel comfortable. I get that, but it's not even coming from another black woman.” Then it feels like, "Okay, I know I'm really awesome and I know I should get this job, but are you literally telling me that because I'm black, I have a better chance than I would have if your company decided not to make this a priority?"

ANDREA: If a company truly wants diversity and equity within their workforce, Natalie thinks it's going to take more work than simply making DEI statements or using hiring quotas.

Natalie: We have a lot of corporations wanting to talk about diversity, talk about how do we recruit these folks, but aren't really having what I saw the necessary conversations to actually having them address diversity and retention in their organizations.

ANDREA: Natalie says a starting point would be having an evaluation tool and determining if the work environment is safe and equitable for women of color, and then work on solutions from there.

Natalie: Let's look at the current people of color who are there, or the differences that we have. How long are they there? Do they have a good experience? To actually say, "Maybe this wouldn't be a good environment for black people."

ANDREA: Addressing discrimination and racism that may be buried with an accompany can be difficult. Many business leaders avoid the deeper work. Natalie believes it's imperative that reaching equity goals come from business leaders.

Natalie: Most of the time CEOs have goals to meet. So it's always curious to me that diversity isn't a part of that. We do need brave CEOs and brave corporations to just make the step and understand that you can have diversity, but it has to come from the top down.

ANDREA: The deeper work required in reaching an equitable workforce might require cultural and foundational changes within the company. Natalie says, this may mean putting more women of color in leadership positions or leading the company's equity goals.

Natalie: We're having conversations about women or people of color, women of color, but we're never actually talking to them. We can have conversations about equity, but if we don't face the elephant in the room, which is if only this body gives solutions, then those solutions will be based in whiteness, which means that we can never get to the equities needed for women of color in the workplace.

ANDREA: In her experience, Natalie thinks another good strategy in establishing an equitable work environment would require that companies be transparent about the actions being taken to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. If companies aren't actively pursuing an equitable workforce, everyone not just women of color, will be aware of this.

Natalie: You need to be transparent because what's going to happen is you can lie to folks and then they'll come in and they'll see it. That's going to tarnish your brand. That's what's really happening. You can say, "Oh, we believe in diversity." Then when your actions show something different, it's better for you to be bold in that statement. I would say if they don't want to be bold in that statement, then maybe they should stop talking about the situation and put someone else in charge.

ANDREA: Natalie says that while there's no perfect job, she encourages women of color applying for jobs to be upfront about their standards and what they expect. She hopes to see more of this going forward.

Natalie: It's okay to put your values on the table and to say, "This is what I've experienced and if I experienced it here, I will be gone." Really see how they react both verbally and non-verbally to you. There's at least should be an expectation that if you bring an issue to the table, that it's going to be listened to and taken seriously.

[MUSIC]

ANDREA: Many DEI experts say that making equity in the workforce a reality will requires strengthening the pipelines that provide higher education and career opportunities. Natalie thinks private businesses, higher education and government can have a greater impact working together on this.

[MUSIC STOPS]

Natalie: Really, it's an interconnection ecosystem when we're talking about the pipelines. I think both corporations, corporate America in higher education needs to do their own part. I do think higher education can take more of a risk and because they're tied so much to the state legislation, then you can start pushing the government to also take on equity.

ANDREA: Natalie stepped away from working in the corporate world, taking a job at the University of Utah as the marketing and admissions coordinator for the school of business. She's inspired by the progress higher ed institutions like the U have made in reaching diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. She finds it motivating, especially compared to her experiences in the private sector.

Natalie: I think higher education needs to be a leader in this. That's actually why I went back to higher education from corporate America was because they can take the risk to be a leader to show corporations, "This is how you put equity within your organization, but also to set that expectation."

ANDREA: Natalie thinks that as companies rely on higher education for emerging talent, and as more women of color graduate with higher education degrees and enter the workforce, this will put more pressure on businesses to meet the same equity, diversity, and inclusion standards graduates experience in their university setting.

Natalie: Higher education really pumps out our workers. If they're saying, no, we want this and these are the type of talent that we're bringing to the table. You can really steer the private sector because of that partnership with higher education.

ANDREA: While working in higher ed, Natalie also took her seat on the South Salt Lake City Council. She's inspired by the leverage local governments can have in giving women of color better opportunities for career advancement.

Natalie: As I got into politics and learning more about municipals, there's a lot you can do to make sure that work environments are stable. There isn't this theft of wages, especially for folks who are working in gig economies or working in labor economies and service industries. While you can't really solve racism with government, you can at least make other aspects of their life a little better.

ANDREA: Natalie is working towards getting more women of color involved in municipal decision-making and city planning, making sure there are a diverse number of voices from the community at these public events.

Natalie: I would love as we're having those conversations to see more diverse faces, specifically women of color. I think it is our part to figure out how to make it more accessible.

ANDREA: Natalie sits on Salt Lake City's Equity Council, where they're working on hiring people of color.

Natalie: I would love that to see more women of color in municipal staff roles. Some obviously represented as elected official, but more leadership roles when it comes to financing, or city planning, or when we talk about housing. We're a diverse city, it doesn't make sense that our staff doesn't reflect that. You have to have the intentionality of that goal, but you also have to make sure you're marketing that goal.

ANDREA: She believes making involvement in local politics more accessible to women of color might involve simple changes.

Natalie: Is it the time isn't accessible. These meetings are I think at 10:00 AM and people have to work. I think a lot of times it's the simplest things that cities can do to encourage women of color, to be more involved in the government and also make it a focal point.

ANDREA: As a community leader, Natalie has been making strong connections with women of color in Utah and exploring ways to open doors for them to be leaders.

Natalie: I'm hoping to work with some city council members in other city is to hold events specifically for women of color who want to run for office, because I know they're out there. I'm always hearing about great voices. As we get closer to the filing deadline is let people know that, "Hey, if you want to run for office, like let's hop on Zoom and I'll answer every question that you have."

ANDREA: Natalie encourages folks to support Utah businesses and organizations run by women of color.

[MUSIC]

Natalie: There are so many great organizations and business leaders that are women and especially women of color. I've made a conscious effort to go to businesses that are actually owned by women or black women.

ANDREA: In recent years, women of color in Utah have made strides in leadership and fighting to establish equity. Natalie is inspired by this movement.

Natalie: I think the future is bright just because I've been able to speak to these women who are involved in their communities. I think there's really a coalition that's being built.

[music]

Natalie: I think sometimes for most women of color that I think now that we're having this global movement right now and talking about race, and this is a good time for us to reclaim our space, reclaim our time, so to speak.

ANDREA: To learn more about Natalie and other resources, visit PBSUtah.org/morethanhalf.

[MUSIC]

ANDREA: This is a PBS Utah production. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please rate and review. Research interviews and production for this episode conducted by Ashley Swansong and Lizzi Brosseau. Audio mixing by Will Montoya.