07/13/2012 02:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2012

Women of Color: Open Dialogue That Begins Behind Closed Doors Can Bring About Change

What will it take to break through the multicultural barriers that still exist today in Corporate America?

I've seen women cry tears of anger and frustration when they've tried to explain at
Working Mother's Multicultural Women's national conferences why they can't trust women from another racial group. And, at the same time, I've also seen other women excitedly claim their identity for the first time as women of mixed-race background.

The 2012 Multicultural Women's National Conference, which convenes for its 10th year from July 17 to 18 in NYC, invites African-American, Asian and South Asian, Mixed Race, Latina, Native American and Caucasian women to come together to talk boldly about the barriers they face, the obstacles they create for themselves and their ideas of what will move their group forward.

Each year, these women break out in separate racial/ethnic groups called Same Race Circles and say out loud what they have been afraid to verbalize anywhere else.

I've heard white women say, privately, that they do not see color; that they are always "nice" to women of color; that they feel united with women of color in the struggle to gain equal rights from men. These are great sentiments, but at our event I've also heard white women acknowledge that as we pushed our way up the ladder of success into the all-male hierarchy, we did not reach out and bring many women of color up with us. We were so busy feeling left out and pushed back by the male power structure that we didn't see that women of color felt the same way about us as we felt about the men. This is the kind of unbridled honest dialogue that will push us forward.

The most difficult topic we address is trust. Jaws dropped as we discovered that African-American women trust white women only half as much as they trust every other group. Companies need to face the barriers that still exist in promoting multicultural women through the ranks and create programs to give a voice to these issues within their own walls.

For the last 10 years, IBM and American Express are the only two companies who have consistently made the list of Working Mother's 25 Best Companies for Multicultural Women list. Ten years ago, these companies had no women of color on their boards. Today, 17% and 8% of their board seats are held by minority women, respectively. That signals some progress, but still, that's a very small number relative to the thousands of companies who can do so much more.

Both Asian and African-American women have formed their own professional support groups, as have others. But the first step is trusting enough to identify what the major issues are. Secondly, we need to continue design diversity initiatives that will encourage bold conversation as a means to changing the culture.

Yes, multicultural women currently hold two very visible CEO seats at major companies. Indian-born Indra Nooyi took the top job at PepsiCo in 2006 and Ursula Burns, who is African-American, was named CEO of Xerox in 2009. However, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Commission figures in 2010, minority women comprise only 7.7% of the officials and managers in private industry, up only slightly from 6.3% in 2003.

Still, I am inspired by progress made by women like Nicole Fuller, 42, a principal at Deloitte. When we asked a group of multicultural women for their "Aha! Moment" in being a multicultural women, Fuller's response was, "I had a tendency to underestimate my potential. I had the good fortune to find a coach who helped me gain the skills -- and gumption -- I need to boost my career. She helped me to create a plan of action to reach my goal of being a principal at my company."

Denise Holloman, 50, a VP at General Mills, says her "Aha! Moment" came when her
manager told her she was one of the most talented members of his organization (of which she was the only person of color). "At that moment, I realized I had allowed the subtle, unsupportive message, which go along with being a "first" to seep into my psyche. After that, I decided to go for it."

As women of color convene this week in New York City to go behind closed doors to discuss their hopes for their corporate futures their corporate futures and work to create cultural change, I ask their employers: What will you do to hire, train and promote multicultural women at a more rapid pace, or at least at one that matches that of men?

We hope to continue to break open into mainstream dialogue the conversations that only take place in private and publish them anonymously so we can put a face on the important work that still needs to be done.