Minority Women Who Make a Difference in the Workplace

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NAME: Noni Allwood
TITLE: Director of gender diversity
AGE: 50

Dealing With "Microinequities"

Allwood had an unusual role model in her own mother, who she says was the first woman doctor in El Salvador (her surname comes from an English grandfather). Allwood, too, would blaze a trail by becoming among the few women to major in engineering at the national university. When she raised her hand in class, a professor would tell her to go home and wash dishes. Newly divorced and toting a toddler, Allwood took an IT job in the U.S., where she says her accent, ethnicity and gender—even her complexion—proved major roadblocks. "Customers would say, 'I don't understand your English—let me talk to Eric,'" she says. "None of my competence counted because of who I was. If I were a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hispanic, though, I wonder how things would have been different."

Minority women in male-saturated professions like technology report frequent instances of subtle discrimination. "Microinequities" is what Allwood calls the small slights and blithe biases that alienate women like her: the inside jokes, the averted eyes, the overlooked suggestions. "They're the very small things that can make a person feel included or excluded in the work environment," she says. She retaliated by overcompensating, taking on ever bigger tasks, traveling, working day and night, until she ran the company's worldwide systems programs. Today she tries to change the equation by working on a program to introduce underprivileged girls to IT as Cisco's director of global gender diversity.

"We don't have a lot of role models in the workplace," says Allwood, "people we can point to when we're 20 and say, hey, I can be like that. It's a challenge."

—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

NAME: Sheryl Battles
COMPANY: Pitney Bowes
TITLE: Vice president of corporate communications
AGE: 47

African-American Women Executives Stay Deeply Involved In Sororities

Like many minority women who have fought their way to the upper ranks of corporate management, Battles is the product of a fiercely education-minded mother. But her mother, who worked as a teacher and a librarian, was just as passionate about community service. As a member of the sorority Delta Sigma Theta, she gave back all her life—and counseled her daughter from an early age to do so, too.

Black sororities differ from their white counterparts by emphasizing community service above all, says members, and by expecting participation to continue, if not grow, after leaving college. As a communications officer for mail and document company Pitney Bowes, Battles often pulls long hours. Still she spends up to 30 more hours a month on Delta activities.

"Delta Sigma Theta is a part of the way that I give back to the community," she says. "But I have found ways to serve the community through other organizations as well. For me, its all about trying to keep the doors of opportunity open that so many before me, made it possible for me to walk through, and to open new doors of opportunity for my daughter's generation and those to follow."

Minority women feel uncomfortable bringing up their community service to employers, sensing tacit disapproval and persisting stereotypes. But Battles says Pitney Bowes not only knows about her sorority participation but lauds it. The company even sponsored a college scholarship fund of a local Delta chapter. "We are raising our profile in the diverse community," says Battles.

—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

NAME: Irish Brown
COMPANY: Lehman Brothers
TITLE: Senior vice president of diversity lateral recruiting
AGE: 35

Bringing Diversity to Wall Street

Irish Brown has had a charmed career. Propelled by education-focused parents and an MBA from Columbia University, she moved smoothly from Wall Street to Washington to corporate finance. Though she succeeded as an investment banker specializing in high-yield capital markets, Irish Brown, whose four grandparents emigrated from the Caribbean, noticed few faces like hers in the workplace. On Wall Street, "diversity has been an issue for a long time not just for people of color but women as well," she says. "Being a woman of color, you notice it from both angles."

It was when she took a job heading up business development at a minority-owned media company that she realized diversity in the workplace made a difference. Irish Brown, who was parenting her fiance's son, felt comfortable sharing her family situation with coworkers—comfortable enough even to ask to place the boy on her health plan. Extended families are a fact of life for more minority women than any other group, and "I felt it was something that was accepted there."

Earlier this year, Irish Brown accepted a job at Lehman Brothers, heading up the recruitment of experienced minority professionals. Her newly created position shows Wall Street is serious about beginning to tackle its lack of diversity, she says. "It's my opportunity to really implement change in an organization."

—Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

NAME: Laura Castro de Cortes
COMPANY: Commercial Federal Bank, Omaha
TITLE: Vice president and director of Latino banking
AGE: 42

Latina Executive Uses Numbers To Prove Her Worth

Laura Castro de Cortes doesn't deny that her ethnicity and background—she is a Mexican-American who was born in the U.S. but raised in a Mexican border town—helped her to segue from years of working in nonprofits and education to a career as a consultant on Latino marketing.

But when she was hired by a regional bank to help develop its Latino clientele, she felt the need to prove that her ethnicity alone did not win her the job. "You kind of feel the need to let people know I got here on my own, not out of any quota," she says. "I knew how to sell that loan to Latinos and no one else knew that and I felt comfort in that. I knew my area."

She also felt the need to prove that Latino marketing was a worthwhile pursuit. "It was hard to prove my case and point. There was no past history" at the bank of targeting Hispanic customers, she says. Castro de Cortes made her case by talking about potential profits to be made from the growing Latino market. "All of a sudden, things changed," she says. "They saw what my area of expertise could do for them. I had the numbers and the potential money to be made. That always, always did the trick."

Castro de Cortes' department was eliminated after the bank was acquired by another bank. She is leaving her job in December, and hoping to land a similar job at another bank soon.

—Betsy Rubiner

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