My Perspective as a Woman of Colour in Tech on Kamala Harris’s Victory
As I watched Kamala Harris’s speech the night she was declared Vice President-elect, I felt many emotions. Like a lot of women of colour, my feelings had a particular gravity. Here she was — a woman of Black and South Asian descent elected to occupy the second-highest ranking position in one of most powerful countries in the world.
As she spoke, I was both deeply moved and poignantly aware that, growing up, I had very few role models on a public stage. In politics, business, and certainly technology — the industry I’ve since built my career in — those in celebrated positions of power never seemed to look like me.
Today, I know those role models did exist, but their stories often went unheard. Pioneers of technology like NASA’s Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson made invaluable contributions to aerospace engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences, yet remained largely unknown for a half-century.
So when Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gave her speech, broadcast live around the world, I knew it would deeply impact women who’ve fought for equality in their careers — as well as their daughters, who will grow up seeing diverse women in leadership roles. But one section of Kamala’s speech resonated with me in particular:
“Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight.
Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.
All the women who worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century: 100 years ago with the 19th Amendment, 55 years ago with the Voting Rights Act, and now, in 2020, with a new generation of women in our country who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard.
Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination, and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders.
But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.”
The Question Isn’t Whether Women Can Lead, It’s When Will We Fully Acknowledge It
In becoming Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris won a big first for women in politics in the United States. Another first for women in leadership came recently when Kim Ng was named the Miami Marlins’ General Manager — making history as Major League Baseball’s both first-ever female and Asian-American GM. Jacinda Arden, at just 37 years old and as the mother of a newborn, made headlines around the world when she was elected Prime Minister of New Zealand. And while the press coverage was exciting, the sheer amount of it signaled how unused to seeing women and mothers as powerful, impactful leaders we are.
These “firsts” come along with many women who’ve long proven themselves as powerbrokers on the world scene. Indra Nooyi, who spent 12 years as PepsiCo’s CEO, has consistently ranked as one of the world’s most powerful women.
And while these women, and so many others, have made significant inroads, it’s widely known women in general — let alone women of colour — are still underrepresented in executive roles and positions of power. The fact is, just as many women enter the corporate workforce as men — but once you hit upper management, there are both silent and explicit barriers to upward mobility based on gender, race, religion, and ethnicity. All you have to do is look at the top.
Just 2.6% of the CEOs for companies in Forbes’ Global 500 in 2020 are women, and none listed were women of colour.
Women are established leaders in companies and teams of all sizes and at all levels, but they still fight for every role. In 2015, just 17 percent of those in C-suite corporate leadership were women. In 2018, that number hit 22 percent, but it has since fallen back to 21 percent.
The McKinsey Women in the Workplace study for 2020 reports:
“Women of color represented only 4% of C-Level positions in 2018, falling far below white men (68%) and white women (19%). Even graduating from a prestigious business or law school doesn’t help much. Of the 532 African-American women who earned their MBAs at Harvard Business School between 1977 and 2015, only 67 (13%) have achieved the highest-ranking executive positions, compared to 161 (19%) of African-American men and 40% of a matched sample of 150 non-African-American HBS alumni.”
Time to Let All Leaders Have the Chance to Lead
Media and corporations cite various reasons why leadership might never reach a proper representational ratio, often hiding behind the fallacy of a “meritocracy” or circular arguments about undiversified talent pools. They talk about the isolation of leadership and how women are too inclusive and maternal, too authentic and unguarded, and not brutal enough, all of which they say limits their ability to work in executive roles.
But this coded discrimination is not only inherently biased — treating women, and furthermore, women of colour, as a monolith — they make for flimsy reasoning even when true. If all we’ve really tried are white, male CEOs and aggrandizing “male” traits as optimal leadership qualities to support this, how can we possibly claim that female leadership is ineffective? Especially when women and people of colour have proven to be effective leaders — and typically fought much harder against statistical disadvantages to get there.
Let’s point back to Jacinda Ardern’s achievements as New Zealand Prime Minister and mother of a new baby. Critics questioned her lack of experience due to her age or how focused she could be with a newborn in the house. They questioned her ability to be a strong presence on the world stage or respond to a major crisis decisively.
But when terror struck her country, she employed “feminine” qualities of compassion and inclusiveness as the strengths they are. She captivated the world, consoling a shattered nation while slamming the door on future terror attacks by enacting sweeping gun restrictions within a month of a horrendous shooting.
Fast forward to when COVID-19 struck the world — Jacinda captained one of the most successful pandemic responses of all countries affected, with swift executive action that stopped a second wave in its tracks. By protecting her people, she protected their economy as well. If that’s not a show of leadership, I don’t know what it is. And it looks like the people of New Zealand agree, because they re-elected her in October 2020 with the largest mandate her party has received in over 50 years.
There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about “emotional intelligence” and its value in leadership and workplaces. Often, many of these emotional IQ traits are tethered to the female perspective. What if we’ve been overlooking the value that dynamic women bring to companies? What if the biases against women at work — the inclusiveness, the maternal nature and so on — can actually make them particularly effective leaders, like in the instance of Ardern?
These Leaders Are All Around You — Support Them
Kamala Harris talks about this being a new generation of women — not the next generation of women, and that’s important, because female and WOC leadership doesn’t need to wait another generation. We have the women, from all backgrounds, of substance and smarts who have the qualities to lead now, today. We need companies and voters to recognize that leadership can be demonstrated in more ways than the historically white, male leadership embraced for so long.
We need women recognized, supported, and promoted for the individual talents, experience, and diverse perspectives they bring to the table.
But we all know that the cycle of success doesn’t just magically happen. People don’t succeed in a vacuum. They’re encouraged, mentored, supported. They’re given opportunities to contribute or to show what they can do. The right support and acknowledgement often unlocks talent that otherwise may not emerge.
Mary Jackson became NASA’s first-ever Black female engineer, but that might never have happened if it weren’t for Kazimierz Czarnecki, who recognized her talents and pushed her into taking the courses required for her promotion. To take those courses, she needed to sue for the right to attend those classes because it was the age of segregation and they were only offered at an all-white high school. With that support from NASA, she won her case, changed history, and spent much of the next three decades working for NASA in various divisions.
To find more Mary Jacksons and Indra Nooyis in our workplaces requires getting rid of the biases that have come from defining leadership in strictly male terms. Let’s not forget that however hard it is for white women to get advanced when they’ve earned it, it’s often far harder for BIPOC women to climb that corporate ladder. It’s time that all women are seen for the talents they offer, and for diverse perspectives to be welcomed as an advantage towards progress and innovation instead of feared as a hindrance or dismissed out of ignorance.
While I’ve advocated for women in the workplace my whole career, there’s something about now–this era in time–that inspires me to push other young women to fight for advancement and stronger roles in their own lives and workplaces.
But they can’t do it alone. Boardrooms need to see beyond gender and colour lines. They need to see results are possible in more ways than one. As Pulitzer Prize-winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn note in their groundbreaking book Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, empowering women in the workplace isn’t just the moral thing to do, it’s a sound economic strategy.
It Works for Us at SEDNA
That’s why I’m proud to be the VP of Engineering at SEDNA Systems. Like so many others in my company, I was hired for my experience and expertise and the impact I contribute to fast-growing organizations. People are seen for what they do and who they are, not their gender or color or connections.
That’s not just marketing copy. SEDNA’s women lead Technology, Finance, Sales, Marketing, and Human Resources, and they’re doing it both in traditional and non-traditional leadership roles.
How our company operates now reflects a lot on our leadership. This is true for any company — such changes must happen from the top down. Our inclusive style of leadership in SEDNA ultimately influences decision-making across the board, but also how strategies are adopted and implemented, how problems are solved, and even how we communicate. At SEDNA, women are valued for everything they bring to the role–including gender and culture.
That’s another point that’s important to me as a woman of Indian descent. Diversity isn’t just about having a few women around the boardroom table or making sure there are different faces around the office. It’s about ideas and culture and beliefs as well. Our different upbringings, our cultural roots, our regional perspectives, are all relevant in a global economy. By truly celebrating diversity in the workplace, it’s possible to see problems from a different point of view, one that might have surprising solutions that wouldn’t occur to teams that are predominantly White, Western, and male.
At SEDNA, we share the perspective that no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all working to make the company the best it can be. Its success is our success. By truly being inclusive and understanding that solutions and innovations don’t have ethnicity or gender, our entire company benefits. Embracing diversity, for us, is about making sure our diverse team aren’t just faces in the room, they’re bringing their distinct voices, culture, and ideas to our discussions.
And while this pandemic continues to threaten the global economy, SEDNA is growing because we’ve promoted based on merit and leadership style. We believe our diversity is our strength, and it reflects in the way our business has scaled, and continues to scale.
The Final Word:
If there’s one takeaway for corporate leaders, it’s that talent, work ethic, and ingenuity are not gender-specific qualities. Do not limit yourself to a smaller talent pool. Embrace the insights and opportunity that truly diverse leadership can produce.
About the author
Lakshmi Baskaran is a corporate leader, entrepreneur, and doted mother. Throughout her exciting career, she has built and managed high-performing Engineering Teams for established corporations and startups alike. She is a global leader and has spent the last two decades of her career working in senior executive roles in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia.
Lakshmi is currently the VP of Engineering at SEDNA, a global SaaS company that manages complex business communications. While Lakshmi is leading her teams to build a global platform at SEDNA, she also continues to act as an influencer for women’s empowerment in technology and leadership. Lakshmi was able to pivot from an individual contributor to a tech leader early on in her career and looks forward to every opportunity to connect with aspiring female tech leaders.
Lakshmi writes on Medium and Thrive about leadership and technology. You can also follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter. Lakshmi offers media interviews on tech and leadership and mentors executives in tech startups about building highly successful global teams. She sees this as a form of giving back to the community that helped her grow.