Women of color face much more resistance in their careers than is represented by the decades-old term “glass ceiling,” according to a local educator.
Brandy Lovelady Mitchell — a longtime educational consultant and now inaugural director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Kent Intermediate School District as of last June — spoke to a full house during an evening professional development event hosted by BL2END, or Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions, on April 25 at West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology in Grand Rapids.
BL2END is a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit with a mission “to foster an environment of growth and belonging, where young professionals of color can connect with each other, develop professionally and contribute to the local community.” Its events and opportunities are diverse and open to all people.
This presentation, part keynote and part interactive dialogue, was called “Breaking the Concrete Ceiling,” and gave participants an overview of the concrete ceiling, i.e., the barriers that prevent professional growth for women of color, from entry level all the way to executive leadership.
Mitchell led participants through a reflection exercise to get them thinking about the characteristics of glass versus concrete.
Audience members said glass is reflective, transparent and fragile, while concrete is much tougher than glass, opaque, foundational and more permanent.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary says the first known use of the term “the glass ceiling” was in 1984. The dictionary defines it as “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions.”
But Mitchell said she believes the term best describes white women because the transparency of glass implies you “can see up, see what’s next,” and that’s not necessarily always the case for women of color as they look up at the concrete ceiling.
The hardships of the glass ceiling are that it breaks when you smash it, and the shards can stab, cut and scar — and when it breaks “it’s easier to repair, meaning you can put the glass ceiling right back up,” Mitchell said.
“But if you mess around with knocking down a chunk of the concrete ceiling,” she said, “you might get knocked out. And knocked out might be the nice way (to say) you can seriously damage yourself or it could even be deadly.”
She said the concrete ceiling has the quality of intersectionality, which means it is not just limited to the issues that women encounter in the workplace but is compounded when other identifiers such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability are added.
“I’m not trying to minimize, but we’re talking more about structural racism and systemic discrimination, and that’s hurtful, and it usually translates into fewer opportunities and more tax on the body and emotions, etc.,” Mitchell said.
She said how we frame the problem matters because we may end up blaming the problem on a person rather than the system, or “messing around with symptoms” instead of addressing the root cause.
Mitchell said in order to break through the concrete ceiling and/or maintain health and thriving after having done so, it’s important for women to set a personal vision.
While a career-focused education consultant at Kent ISD before her current job, she created a framework with the acronym SODA — self-awareness, option awareness, decision-making and action planning — to help people take steps to overcome barriers.
She said the first step — self-awareness, or knowing your interests, values and beliefs — is as much about knowing who you are not as it is about knowing who you are.
“In trying to take the next ladder rung to your destination, there will be some temptations and some things in placed in front of you that if you’re not clear about your values, your interests and who you are — your identity — you can take a very dangerous slip compromising you, everything you stand for and your legacy,” she said.
“Also, in the busyness of our rat race, we can do a whole of stuff, but if it’s not aligned to your values, your mission, your purpose, it’s just pointless, and you can end up in misalignment looking busy and looking like you’re making boss moves, but it’s not aligned to your purpose or connected to your values.”
She said professionals of color — whether they’re climbing the ladder or trying to sustain themselves when they get to the top — need to be aware of potential opportunity costs. Throughout her life, Mitchell has missed family time for studying or work. Other opportunity costs for women of color include alienation — getting to your goal can mean you are suddenly the only person who looks like you in that space — as well as the constant need to prove yourself and your qualifications, disprove others’ assumptions about you — even endure interrogation over hairstyles.
She said those costs underscore the importance of awareness, self-care and “having a crew who will have your back and come see about you” when you make it.
Mitchell said she encourages women of color looking to smash the concrete ceiling to embrace their strength and creativity.
“You have to be a dreamer and a warrior,” she said. “Oftentimes, people of color in the workplace experience a lot of oppression. If you can’t dream about possibilities and where you see yourself, who you want to be outside of that, that’s a problem. You’ll get stuck in the cement.”
She said warriors — much like the Dora Milaje, the elite female warriors in the “Black Panther” world of Wakanda — look out for each other fiercely and chase their dreams.
As a person who gives her all, Mitchell said she struggles with option awareness when she has her head down absorbed in her work.
“It is important for us to look up and look out because you might miss some of the options that are really out there,” she said.
Option awareness asks people to survey and scan the field of opportunities and examine how to align your gifts and talents within them. In some cases, it may require building new muscles. In other cases, you will see gaps your existing talents can fill.
Sometimes, professionals might need to gain more exposure and visibility — such as presenting at conferences, going to networking events (where not just peers are present) and shadowing people in jobs they want — to connect to new opportunities.
She said those who seek out mentors can sometimes be fortunate enough to have the mentorship turn into a sponsorship, where the mentor endorses the protégé for a job in his or her company or at another workplace where they have clout.
Mitchell said this is about deciding what workplace and job opportunity is the best fit in terms of does it align with your talents, are you OK with the level of sacrifice it would require of you, and do you have enough support to pull it off?
This goes back to option awareness. If you have determined you aspire to a different position than the one you have, what do you need to work on?
“What class or credential might you need to enroll in, who might you seek out to be a mentor? All of those things come into play,” Mitchell said.
She urged those who “make it” to hold open the door for others, and those who haven’t made it to keep going.
“(Don’t be) intimidated about not being able to see your reflection in the C-suite, knowing that we still belong there,” she said.