“As Black professional women in the workplace, our brands are often created for us before we get to create them,” writes Francine Parham in Please Sit Over There (Berrett-Koehler, Aug.). She would know: on her first day as a global vice president at a Fortune 100 company, the receptionist cut off Parham mid-introduction, telling her to “please sit over there” with the other associate trainees. Parham spoke with PW about power, unwritten rules, and what comes next for companies trying to embed diversity into their operating principles.
Why did you choose to focus on the concept of power?
My parents were products of the civil rights movement. I grew up in a family that was very much focused on understanding who had power and how they made things happen. When I entered the corporate sector, I knew I needed to see how things worked. As a Black woman, I saw that we weren’t taught the rules of the game. We have been told that if we do a good job, we will be promoted, but you and I both know that isn’t true. I saw people get promoted just because they had one key person at the table advocating for them. I wanted Black women to understand there’s a game going on, and you need to get in the game.
Does the shift to remote work change the rules you describe?
It makes it more complex. You still have the same people in power and they’re still doing the same thing. What’s changed is the way that work gets done. When offices went remote we should have seen output count for more than power dynamics and relationships, but that didn’t happen. Let’s not pretend remote work is going to take us to some sort of mythical playing field where your hard work is enough to get you to the next level. I used to arrange lunch meetings with leaders—they would push me off for six months but I would come back to them. You can still carve out face time, even though it’s in a virtual setting.
How have you seen the conversation around diversity and inclusion evolve over your 30-plus years in corporate America?
It used to be just a nice to-do item. It wasn’t a discussion where we were saying “If we don’t do this, we’re going to lose customers, we’re not going to have an engaged workforce.” My [HR] role then was creating awareness about what diversity and inclusion meant. We’ve moved on from awareness and are now getting to accountability but we still have a long way to go. I’ll give you an example. After the murder of George Floyd, all of the big companies said they were going to donate money, they put out statements, it was the corporate playbook at its best. But do we know where they put their money? They started employee resources groups, and that’s great, but I often get invited by these groups and they ask me if I can speak for free. Why? Because they aren’t given any budget. All the companies are saying they need to do better, but it’s harder for them to show us how they’re doing it. Accountability means being transparent, and we haven’t gotten there yet. TBD on that.