The nomination of Kamala Harris as the first Black-Indian vice presidential candidate in history provides renewed hope for diversity and inclusion both inside and outside politics. It’s no small feat to have a woman of color as a role model in such an important and visible position.
For those who aren’t aware, Harris’ parents are Jamaican and Indian, making her both America’s first Black female nominee by a major political party and the first Asian-American of any gender on a major party ticket.
Why visibility matters
It’s not controversial to say that white men have held an overwhelming majority of influential positions throughout American history. The numbers tell the story. And because white men still hold the majority of leadership positions in government and corporate America, it’s not difficult for young white men to find role models in virtually every American workforce.
While we might not want to emulate the decisions or take the positions of every person in power we see, simply seeing them has a beneficial effect.
Take corporate America writ-large. There are fewer women than ever in leadership positions, making it hard to envision oneself near the top as a female worker. Deanna Strable, executive vice president and CFO at Principal Financial Services, told McKinsey:
“The lack of women in C-suite positions is a self-perpetuating cycle. Because we don’t have many females in the C-suite, young women don’t see role models or potential paths towards executive-level leadership and are more likely to deselect themselves out of higher-level leadership roles.”
The same goes for STEM fields at the forefront of innovation. We need these workers to be as creative as possible, which can only be accomplished with a diverse workforce. They’re also poised to play the largest role in economic growth over the next half-dozen years as well as pay roughly 29%-39% more than non-STEM jobs.
Women can’t afford to be left out of these jobs.
A University of Massachusetts Amherst study found that having academic contact with female professionals in STEM can have a positive influence on female students because it allows them to imagine themselves in those roles and boosts their confidence about getting a job in one of those fields. The same goes for women of color.
Politics is no different. A record number of voters showed up to elect the 116th Congress, and that population was more diverse than ever. But even though a record number of women and people of color were elected, Congress remains overwhelmingly white and male compared to the overall population.
Even the most male-dominated fields – from farmers and firefighters to aircraft pilots and architects – have benefitted from making women more visible. As more women become vocal about sustainable agriculture, the number of female farmers in the U.S. alone is higher than ever. Visibility projects in which women tell their stories from inside the field have put a spotlight on female firefighters and led to more direct recruiting efforts. On top of that, scholarships and special career days designed to get girls (both white and BIPOC) interested in new kinds of training has put more women in flight training and architecture programs.
Clearly, there has been progress in creating more inclusive workforces (though myriad barriers remain). But it’s trailblazing women who are leading the way by example.
In politics, it’s women like Kamala Harris and those that came before her.
But Harris’ bi-racial status has made her doubly important to non-white Americans. In a recent New York Times piece, readers wrote in to say just what her nomination for the vice presidency meant to them, and it was the sheer visibility of a biracial woman that came up again and again.
“She doesn’t accept nonsense and is a total powerhouse. More important, she looks like me! I never thought I’d see the day when my next V.P. shared the same skin color, no-nonsense attitude, and even the same middle name,” said Shakunthala Devi Shiwnath, 29, of Boston.
Of course, there’s also the hope that Harris will speak for non-white Americans and stand up for their rights in a way that white politicians have failed to in the past. And she said as much when she formally accepted her nomination at the Democratic National Convention and called out the structural racism that is quite literally killing People of Color in the U.S. as the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to spread:
And while this virus touches us all, let’s be honest, it is not an equal opportunity offender. Black, Latino and Indigenous people are suffering and dying disproportionately. This is not a coincidence. It is the effect of structural racism. Of inequities in education and technology, health care and housing, job security and transportation. The injustice in reproductive and maternal health care. In the excessive use of force by police. And in our broader criminal justice system. This virus has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other—and how we treat each other. And let’s be clear—there is no vaccine for racism. We’ve gotta do the work.”
Visibility is not enough
Merely living in a country where a biracial Black-Indian American can be on the ballot is not enough. And Harris herself deserves to be more than a poster child for how far we think we’ve come.
The truth is that as a lawyer, District Attorney, Attorney General, and a United States Senator, Harris has managed to break through many ‘glass ceilings’ to get to where she is today. She brings every possible qualification to the table AND adds a point of view a white candidate could not.
In other words, choosing a non-white, female candidate does not come at the cost of selecting the best and most qualified candidate. Hopefully, focusing on her credentials will jolt people into realizing that there are likely many qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds.
And it begs the question: how many other proven, highly-qualified candidates have been passed over for leadership roles because they were women or of color?
There have long been white and BIPOC women “in the pipeline” of every male-dominated field. And just like Kamala Harris, they’ve had the qualifications to succeed. But to continue on with the metaphor – the pipeline “leaks.” Women leave at different points for different reasons, but more targeted outreach and inclusion efforts (as well as more attention paid to harassment and discrimination of women on their way up) not only attract women to a field but help them succeed once they’re in it. In a perfect world, these women would pose no threat to their co-workers and instead be allowed to flourish alongside them and serve as role models to the next generation – just as Kamala Harris is doing now.
Harris on diversity and inclusion
Senator Harris has done a lot more for diversity and inclusion than simply exist in a Black-Indian body. Her track record on civil rights is there for all to see.
In addition to shedding light on the voting records of fellow politicians, Harris has introduced her own legislation designed to promote diversity and inclusion in banking. She first introduced the Ensuring Diverse Leadership Act in the 115th Congress in 2018 and then again in 2019.
It states that each of the 12 reserve banks in the Fed “must interview at least one individual reflective of gender diversity and one reflective of racial or ethnic diversity.” Before that, only 3 of over 130 presidents of reserve banks had been non-white, and only 7 were women.
As a potential presidential nominee, Harris proposed policy in favor of pay equality as well. She suggested that companies with over 100 employees would have to apply for “equal pay certification” every 2 years. She also vowed to fine employers who did not pay male and female employees equally for the same type of work. Employers would have been fined 1% of their yearly profit for every 1% of the wage difference between genders.
Those fines, she estimated, would have totaled roughly $180 billion in their first decade and she said the money would have gone towards funding a new employee paid family and medical leave benefit.
Burdens and new beginnings
When Kamala Harris held a rally for her presidential campaign in March of 2019 in North Charleston, South Carolina, two black teenagers approached her to ask for a photo. She not only obliged but took the time to speak with them. Seeing and hearing her – having her talk directly to them – was transformative. For 13-year old Paris Bond, it was a moment that could set her on a new path.
For those who have always had the option of being seen and heard, it might be hard to understand what that conversation meant. To see and be seen by a woman of color in power is proof that there’s a path to follow.
We can no longer deny that qualified non-white female candidates are out there, which could make this a turning point if they are recognized and provided the same opportunity as white male counterparts.
Will a presidential race ever look the same after this? Will we see an election in the future without a woman or woman of color? Or will it now look like something is missing?
Even if the Biden/Harris campaign is not successful, her legacy will leave an indelible mark on history. As Harris herself has often been quoted saying: “You may be the first to do many things but make sure you’re not the last.”
Visit our workplace diversity hub for further reading relating to current challenges faced by women and people of color, wage gaps, successful inclusion strategies, diversity in corporate and government leadership, effective talent acquisition and diversity programs, and how artificial intelligence affects diversity outcomes.
photo credit: Gage Skidmore