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What corporate America can learn from Marvel’s Black Panther

3/22/2018 Ayana Parsons

What corporate America can learn from Marvel’s Black Panther

If you haven’t seen Marvel’s new movie, Black Panther, then you’re missing out. If you are a woman or a lover of women, it’s a must-see. Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, but there is so much more work to be done. On a global scale, we are moving backward. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, the gender parity gap across health, education, politics, and the workplace is widening.1 While some countries, including Canada, France, and Iceland, have either reached or made big strides toward gender parity in recent years, others have not kept up. The United States, in particular, fell four places, to #49, in the Global Gender Gap Index. This is a stark reminder that we still live in a world where women earn less than their male counterparts and are severely underrepresented in leadership roles across a wide range of fields and disciplines.2 And that’s why movies like Black Panther are so vital to our global fabric. They paint women in a triumphant light—one where women are not just equal but truly empowered. Without going into the details of the movie, so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it yet, I will draw some parallels between corporate America, in particular, and what we can all learn from the movie.

Intersectionality defined

I have had the distinct pleasure of working for some of the world’s leading multinational corporations and am now on a mission to help diversify the ranks of leadership within those same corporations and many more. While there are many facets to diversity, there is one that often gets overlooked, especially when we talk about gender: intersectionality. While not a new term by any means, intersectionality, coined in the 1980s by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, is the “understanding of how women’s overlapping identities—including race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation—impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination.”3 Rather than thinking of identity as a collection of separate elements, the elements are thought of as inextricably linked with each other and that all aspects of identity are integral, interlocking parts of a whole. Crenshaw argues that “intersectionality draws attention to invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, in class politics, so obviously it takes a lot of work to consistently challenge ourselves to be attentive to aspects of power that we don’t ourselves experience.”4

Invisible in plain sight

You may be wondering, “So what? Why should I care about intersectionality?” My answer is simple: when we do not consider intersectionality, “women of color [become] invisible in plain sight.”5 In Black Panther, the fictional African nation Wakanda not only survived but thrived while being invisible in plain sight. But, unfortunately, we’re not talking about a fictional land; we’re talking about real human beings whose stories are eye-opening.

Too often, diversity and inclusion initiatives that focus specifically on gender benefit the majority and not underrepresented minorities. On this International Women’s Day, I urge us not to forget about women of color, whose journeys in particular can look and feel very different from those of their majority counterparts. And this is what makes Black Panther such an incredible story. It shows women—black women—in roles of power and authority, creating, leading, strategizing, and problem solving. And while we have examples right here in America of black women paving the way in business, science, technology, the arts, etc., too few have reached the mountaintop. Let’s consider the facts:

What’s next? A new narrative

The good news is that there is a different narrative emerging, one in which there is a belief that we can achieve parity not just among the genders but within the genders. If Black Panther was any indication of the power and potential that black women hold, then watch out, world! I have many thoughts on what it will take for us to close the racial gap within the gender gap, and I’ll leave you with food for thought: I suspect that many men and white women are not aware of this issue—that minority women are invisible in plain sight, especially when it comes to the highest levels of leadership.

If you’re a hiring manager who falls into this majority, here’s what you can do to help change things:

1. Share the facts. Let others know the gap exists, and begin to question your individual, your team’s, and/or your organization’s talent strategy related to underrepresented women.
2. Challenge yourself and those around you to not only mentor but also sponsor high-potential women of color. And remember that mentors give counsel and advice, while sponsors create opportunities.
3. If you find that there are no high-potential women of color in your organization to mentor and sponsor, then take a hard look at your definition of high potential. Is it an inclusive definition? Perhaps not. You may find that you’re docking points from women of color for superficial reasons.
4. Last, if your organization doesn’t have women of color in leadership (or any at all, for that matter), then you need to ask yourself, your CHRO, or your chief diversity officer why. It is possible that you had one or two in the past, and it didn’t work out (probably because you had only one or two). Or it could be that you lack the knowledge, network, and experience to attract these in-demand, underrepresented professionals.

Regardless of the reasons why the gap exists, know that by cultivating awareness and working to close that gap, the future can be different.


About the author

Ayana Parsons (aparsons@heidrick.com) is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Atlanta office and a member of the Consumer Markets Practice.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

References

1 World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, 2017.

2 For more on efforts to address the gender gap in corporate leadership, visit Paradigm for Parity.

3 Alia E. Dastagir, “What is intersectional feminism? A look at the term you may be hearing a lot,” USA Today, January 19, 2017.

4 Bim Adewunmi, “Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: ‘I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use,’” NewStatesman, April 2, 2014.

5 Bim Adewunmi, “Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: ‘I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use,’” NewStatesman, April 2, 2014.

6 Judith Warner and Danielle Corley, “The women’s leadership gap,” Center for American Progress, May 21, 2017.

7 Judith Warner and Danielle Corley, “The women’s leadership gap,” Center for American Progress, May 21, 2017.

8 Judith Warner and Danielle Corley, “The women’s leadership gap,” Center for American Progress, May 21, 2017.

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Ayana Parsons Principal +1 404 6827400

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