Creating a Supportive Environment for Women of Color at PwC

Women of color mentoring and sponsoring other women of color can be meaningful and effective. It’s powerful to get support from someone like you who understands and experiences the same struggles.

“Women often tell me they get inspired when they see women in leadership roles and even more so when those women look like them,” says Christine del Rosario, a PwC Trust Partner. “It allows them to imagine themselves in a similar position in the future. To help uplift other women of color, it is critical to be intentional in how you choose to help.”

Most women of color want to advance in the workplace, but they are less likely to receive the mentoring and sponsorship critical for their career growth. When they get support, they are more likely to be mentored and sponsored by other women of color. 

Fair360, formerly DiversityInc spoke with three women of color employees at PwC (2022 Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame and 2012 #1 Top 50 Companies for Diversity) about the guidance they have received in their careers and how they are paying it forward.

Recognize the Obstacles

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women made substantial gains in representation, especially in senior leadership. However, women of color are still underrepresented on each rung of the corporate ladder and face impediments to their success like pay inequality, discrimination and a lack of leadership opportunities.

“That’s why it can be critical to seize opportunities to mentor or sponsor another woman of color within your organization – particularly if you are more experienced in your field and have the hindsight to shape a new experience for someone else,” says Syreeta Williams, a PwC Trust Solutions Director.

“Sharing your experiences of what worked well and what you know can make all the difference in how the next woman of color responds to or is impacted by dealing with bias or discrimination in a workplace,” she adds.

No one – including women of color – is immune to biases. To bring about the most change, it’s important to check biases at the door and know the best way to address them, says Talat Mangla, a PwC Trust Solutions Director.

Affinity bias or having an unconscious preference for people who share common beliefs and backgrounds can easily influence decisions like who to mentor, whom to include on a project or whom to nominate for an opportunity,” she says. “Being conscious of these biases and challenging what’s comfortable or familiar can go a long way in creating more opportunities for women of color.”

WEBINAR: Implicit Bias During the Hiring Process

Commit the Time  

Mentorship and sponsorship are important tools at any stage of a woman of color’s career, but they can be even more meaningful when she’s just beginning her career.

“Many years ago, another South Asian woman on my team was exceptional and I knew she would excel with additional coaching,” says Mangla.

“Investing the time to give candid feedback on work and performance – like how to plan for and conduct important client meetings or manage the timely completion of work – is what helps someone grow and opens new opportunities. I’d like to think I did that for her when we worked together. She was promoted to senior associate and eventually manager,” she adds.

Throughout her career, Williams has been formally and informally mentored by many women of color and feels it’s important to return the favor.

For many years, Williams worked on a project with another woman of color. They established a strong friendship and Williams became an informal mentor to her colleague. At one point, Williams was transitioning to a new role while her mentee was moving across the country.

“It would have been easy for us to drift apart, but we didn’t,” she says. “We made an equal investment in reaching out to each other often to check in and share advice as we navigated new work environments. As we neared the end of our performance year, she reached out to me to discuss her impact during the year and how to best position herself for promotion. We set aside time after working hours and framed her business case together. It was meaningful for us, and she was promoted that year.”

READ: Sponsorship Key to Changing the Landscape for Women of Color

Tailor the Support

The mentorship and sponsorship guidance women of color require is not one-size-fits-all. Del Rosario recalls that the support, counsel, and feedback she received from senior managers and partners early in her career helped her substantially. 

“It’s important to invest the time to build a relationship so you can better understand how they can use your support,” she says.

One woman may need help expanding her network or building her confidence. Another woman may want to lean on a mentor or sponsor open to sharing their successes, challenges and mistakes.

“Regardless of the approach you take for each one of these women, one of the most important things to do is to help create a village to support them – a village composed of women and men, who will bring different things to the table and amplify the woman you’re trying to elevate,” says del Rosario. 

Following the killing of George Floyd, more companies have introduced programs targeting the employee development of diverse groups. In PwC’s 2021 Transparency Report, the company reaffirmed its commitment to diversity and inclusion and employee professional development. Subsequently, PwC created two programs focused on mentorship and sponsorship – Thrive and Enrich.

Thrive is designed to support Black and Latinx associates in the first two years of their careers. Enrich was created to support high-potential female and racially/ethnically diverse talent.

“Thrive – given its earlier on in your career – is more focused on mentorship, but the relationships you’re building through that first and second year of your career are critical because those people you interact with can become your sponsors,” says Williams. “Enrich is a program when you’re later in your career. You’re nearing the partner’s stage and probably working through some of those skills with your sponsors.”

Speak About Them Often

A sponsor is someone who advocates for someone being sponsored to help advance their career. Sponsors will speak about proteges when they aren’t in the room. They will make sure other decision-makers know their name or recommend them for a raise or promotion.

“As leaders, it’s important to support other women of color and use the unique privilege we have to amplify the voices of these women and make a positive impact on their career progression,” says del Rosario. 

Several years ago, she had an opportunity to meet a manager who transferred from one of PwC’s larger offices in the U.S. to a smaller office overseas. The manager – whom del Rosario describes as a ‘very capable individual’ – wanted to expand her experience in the banking sector and serve large banks.

“I spoke with the lead partner of one of our largest banking clients,” she says. “She is a fantastic leader and a strong supporter of diversity and inclusion at the firm. Together, she and I carved out a role for this manager so she could be surrounded by a large team where she could learn, thrive and belong. The space we created for her was a little bit of allyship, mentorship and sponsorship wrapped into one.”

Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PwC says unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how talented or brilliant women of color are.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t have the skills,” she says. “The sad thing is that they have the skills. They are not given the visibility, the feedback and the network. We should come to grips that this is what the majority is doing. How do we make sure whether in the room or not, that people are supportive and building channels for networking.”

Have the Tough Discussions

Effective mentorship and sponsorship are not just about having easy conversations. For the past ten years, PwC has assigned Williams to work with a colleague whose role has evolved from a mentor to a sponsor.

“Their biggest benefit to that relationship and how I was able to feel her investment in my growth and success was not just in how she celebrated me when great things were happening in my career,” she says.

“It was how she never shied away from delivering the hard messages when I didn’t want to hear them. That was a game changer because often there can be sensitivity around giving feedback to women of color or women in general,” she adds.

Women of color may be reluctant to support each other at work because of repercussions if the protégée doesn’t perform well, the threat of competition and concerns about favoritism.

“The way I see it, the support you show others in your organization does not have to be singular; you can support other women of color and help shine a light on their accomplishments and their potential and their capabilities will more than adequately justify your support,” says del Rosario. 

“You can also demonstrate your fairness and focus on equality when you celebrate the accomplishments of others who are just as deserving, regardless of their background, and the honesty in which you show your support to deserving individuals,” she adds.

Mangla says there’s also power in women of color supporting women of underrepresented groups, such as those living with a disability or members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sponsoring individuals of a different background, but still underrepresented can go a long way to helping all women of color,” she says. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Watch the sessions from Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s 2022 Women of Color and Their Allies event here!