Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City's recently-elected State's Attorney, has been facing criticism regarding her decision to charge six police officers in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. While her courageous decision was surprising given that, in cases like Gray's, the rulings usually favor the police, the questions about her competency are not.
The findings of a 2012 study by researchers at Duke and Northwestern Universities reveal that African-American women in leadership are more harshly criticized than women of other races and men of all races. In the study, participants read a failed business strategy with the color and gender of the leader as the only changed variable in the story. Thus, while a significant failure can be a stepping stone to success for most leaders, it may be terminal to the careers of African-American women.
Related, a recent study by researchers at UC Hastings on gender bias in STEM fields found that African-American women were more likely (77 percent) than other women (66 percent) to report having to prove themselves over and over.
As an African-American woman with 20 years of leadership experience and a change management consulting firm, I have seen and lived these findings. However, I cannot recall a time when I regretted making a choice that I felt was right. But what I have regretted are the times that I failed to fully consider the implications of my choices on my family, whether my team was ready to change, and how the stereotypes related to my race, age and gender would play into people's response.
One strategy I have developed for myself and my clients to help us be prepared for the possible implications of a major decision and weigh their pro's and con's is "Considering the FACTS." The FACTS represent Family, Agency, Community, Truth, and Society. I have found it to be tremendously useful and I advise people who are facing a high-stakes decision to consider them, too.
Family. When making controversial decisions, leaders must ask, "If this decision costs me my job, my reputation and my livelihood, what will that mean for my family?" These are very important questions that woman must consider as most either share the financial responsibility of the household or own it outright.
Agency. Leaders must also ask, "Is everyone on board or able to support the decision despite their differences?" Often serving the community effectively means changing the way that the agency does business to reflect the changes in society. As a result, change leads to internal conflict as the organization and its employees are stretched and challenged to operate outside of their comfort zones. Leading through change can also perpetuate the stereotype that African-American women are too "pushy and aggressive"
Community. All leaders must also consider how their choices represent the community with which they are personally, professionally and politically affiliated as well as how that community will respond. African-American woman may feel the need to temper her responses so as not to evoke the image of the "angry black woman" and display her relatability to other people of color with whom they work despite the vast differences in personalities, histories, and approaches. But ultimately, they need to consider how their decision can help or hinder their community.
Truth. Clients, colleagues and the community have no problem trying to convince leaders to respond one way when the facts suggest they should act in another. However, truly courageous leaders -- African-American female or otherwise -- must be committed to uncovering and acting upon the truth despite the consequences.
Society. In the nonprofit sector, political and civic arenas, the real objective is to do what is best for society. Our goal and motivation for entering these fields is to make a difference in society. In the end, we are faced with the choice of whether to perpetuate society's ills or address them.
The first three considerations govern how you announce your decision. However, if you are going to be a rare and courageous leader, only the last two will determine what decision you make. That is why I'm in awe of Marilyn Mosby's leadership at the age of 35. She considered the impact of her decision on her family, office and community and made the choice she felt best aligned with her personal truth and what is best for society. Whether you believe she made the right decision or not, she found a way to use her history, culture, age and gender as an asset and not a liability.
If you are coming up against a challenging decision, remember to consider the FACTS to help you decide what choice to make.
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