Project examines barriers for women of color

Shannon Cohen and Pat Sosa VerDuin want women of color in the West Michigan business community to been seen and heard.

Cohen, who is African American, and VerDuin, who is Mexican American, met and struck up a friendship as recipients of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network fellowships three years ago.

As their kinship grew, the pair found common ground in noticing a lack of information about barriers to leadership for women of color.

One day, VerDuin emailed Cohen a link to a news report about equity issues along the lakeshore. The photo that accompanied the article depicted no women or people of color.

“That was the match that lit this project,” Cohen said.

The pair launched a research project and survey called “Invisible Walls, Ceilings and Floors: Championing the Voices and Inclusion of Women of Color in West Michigan.”

They will present their findings at two upcoming forums at Grand Valley State University:

  • Noon-1:30 p.m. March 2 at the Kirkhof Center, Grand River Room, on GVSU’s Allendale campus
  • 6-7:30 p.m. March 16 at the DeVos Center, Loosemore Auditorium, on GVSU’s Pew Grand Rapids Campus

Calvin College’s social research department helped Cohen and VerDuin design the survey; their Kellogg fellowships and a small grant and in-kind donations from GVSU funded the work.

They distributed the assessment to affinity groups throughout Kent and Ottawa counties — such as the West Michigan Asian American Association, Anishinaabe Circle, Lakeshore Latinas, Black Women Connect, Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network, Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce and Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, to name a few — in order to reach as many women as possible from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Questions probed issues such as being the first or only woman or person of color in a leadership position company-wide, barriers to entry, risks faced, myths and truths, the hiring process and the problems with current methods of talent recruitment and retention.

The survey garnered 120 responses; 50.8 percent came from the nonprofit sector, 25 percent from for-profit, 10.8 percent from government, 12.5 percent from “other,” and 0.8 percent did not identify their sector.

VerDuin said a broken narrative contributes to exclusion and inequity.

“One of our goals (in this study) was to change the narrative,” she said, noting that often leadership positions come available at companies that want to increase diversity, but they don’t end up hiring women of color.

“They say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a person of color?’ and no one would apply. They would say, ‘Maybe there’s just no one who wants to apply.’

“We did not believe that, so we decided to reach out to Kent and Ottawa County residents through a survey and find out what is the lived narrative.”

VerDuin and Cohen discovered the survey respondents were overwhelmingly qualified for the positions they sought.

Eighty percent of the women who participated had some level of college education, 40 percent had a bachelor’s degree and 57 percent had a master’s or doctorate.

VerDuin and Cohen said survey respondents reported a lack of opportunity despite their education.

“When you ask these women what was a factor in their hiring, 33 percent said it was access to the job posting,” Cohen said. “Often, employers use very homogenous networks and aren’t connecting with communities of color.”

Instead of using websites that are publicly accessible or direct marketing to affinity groups, Cohen said many employers rely on word-of-mouth using their existing employees. If those employees are Caucasian, it perpetuates more homogenous hiring.

Cohen and VerDuin said survey respondents indicated organizations that profess to be dedicated to inclusion need to back it up with action.

In the survey, “We put women in the position of saying, ‘What are the solutions?’ and so many women are saying organizations need to have a line item in their budget for equity and inclusion in recruitment,” Cohen said.

Why? Because diversity builds a stronger workforce, Cohen said.

“The truth that emerged is that a woman of color’s unique identity contributes to a competitive advantage,” she said. “Women thrive once they can tap into their super powers as leaders.”

VerDuin said organizations must assess their “readiness” to make change.

“How do they identify themselves? What’s their vision? What’s their mission? What do they want their employee base to look like?” she said. “It’s not about going out and hiring the ‘token’ person of color — it’s about constantly being scrutinized internally. It is about the organization itself, not just about hiring a person.”

Citing her own experience in Grand Rapids, Cohen said although Grand Rapids is making strides, systemic racism still is a problem.

“For every win I’ve had, there have been so many spaces where I’ve encountered invisible walls,” she said. “It’s barriers to the full engagement of women of color in senior leadership spaces in our community.

“This work for me is about adding to the quantitative data, gaps and racial disparities we know exist. When we look at Kent and Ottawa, specifically, the numeric disparities are highly visible. When we only see numbers, we never hear voices and never see faces.

“We need to be able to sit in the awkwardness of why we were listed at 51st of 52 cities economically for African Americans a couple years ago.”

VerDuin said survey respondents were eager to have a conversation about creating change — 80 out of the 120 respondents said they would be willing to have a face-to-face conversation about the study, despite the personal risk in sharing — and many of them already are working toward change.

“When you ask the women why they pursued a leadership position, 75 percent said they want to make a difference in their community,” VerDuin said.

VerDuin and Cohen said they hope the study is “transformative” for the community — that businesses will see the economic argument for equity and inclusion — and helpful for women of color.

“One of the things some of the women indicated would be beneficial is the opportunity to be mentored by women who look like them,” VerDuin said. “These women want someone who has lived leadership.”

To that end, they will continue their work in a few ways.

“We’re sharing the research with the forum, but we’re also launching a website called Sisters Who Lead, and academics and leaders will be able to download the 40-page report,” Cohen said.

“We want this data to become a critical informing tool of how (businesses) do attraction, promotion and recruitment.”

VerDuin and Cohen’s presentations at GVSU will include a Q&A session.

To register for the March 2 event in Allendale, visit To register for the March 16 event in Grand Rapids, visit

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