It’s no secret that women are at a significant disadvantage in the workforce. And it’s certainly no secret that women of color are at an even greater disadvantage in terms of the gender pay gap, lack of opportunity and discrimination.
And yet, despite the cries for equality and the demands of women (and men) at all levels of success and fame, women of color still struggle to achieve the success and recognition they deserve across virtually all professional fields. It’s maddening. But author Cecilia Muñoz isn’t simply focusing on all that is wrong with the system (though clearly there is a LOT wrong with the system). Instead, she is focusing on inspiring women of color who are sick and tired of feeling invisible with her new book More than Ready: Be Strong and Be You . . . and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise.
And Muñoz certainly has had her fair share of experiences to draw from in her mission to inspire women of color to rise up and seek new levels of success and influence. As the first Latina to head up the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama, Muñoz knows what it feels like to be the only Latinx in the room, and to receive judgement or doubt from others who assume she is merely a “box to check off” in terms of diversity.
Muñoz recalls a former colleague who flat-out accused her of only being hired because she satisfied the need for diversity, despite the fact that her qualifications (and not her minority status) are the reason she was so well suited and ultimately chosen to head up Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. In that position she was able to help frame the President’s immigration policies, a responsibility that was exponentially more challenging and important considering Muñoz was the senior Hispanic person in the Obama White House, and she had to balance her commitment to the administration with her personal passions and commitment to the advocacy community.
Through incredibly honest anecdotes and insightful advice, Muñoz looks back on her career path and her journey to success, while also openly sharing her personal struggles to balance her professional ambition with her desire to be “the perfect Latina mom.” As we all know, the perfect mom does not exist, and as you’ll read in her book, her kids turned out just fine despite, or more likely because of their mom’s drive to succeed.
This is the book all women need right now — a literary masterpiece that simultaneously opens your eyes and ignites a desire to keep going. And this kind of tactical advice and inspiration could not have come at a more crucial time.
We all know that the country (and the world) is suffering economically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The economy is spiraling in what feels like a free-fall and unemployment claims are surging at unprecedented levels. Recent reports show that unemployment claims have reached 26 million as of April 23rd, and the Federal Reserve estimates that up to 47 million jobs could be lost. And these numbers are even scarier and more significant for women and more specifically, women of color. A recent national poll from ABC News and The Washington Post found that while 33 percent of Americans have been immediately impacted by unemployment due to the coronavirus (either they or a family member have lost their job due to the pandemic), the trend is even worse for women and minorities. The poll found that 37 percent of women and 40 percent of Hispanics and blacks reported the same unemployment trend.
While these tough times might seem like a challenging moment for a book release, Muñoz’s thoughtful insight and tactical tools for women of color are more essential than ever. Through her own story as well as conversations with other prominent women of color, including Deesha Dyer, who served as one of Michelle Obama’s top aides, and Pramila Jayapal, the first South Asian woman to serve in Congress, Muñoz hopes to show readers that they are not alone and they are not only qualified, but ready to succeed. “What I’m hoping for is that women will see themselves,” she told NBC News, “and understand themselves as women who can take flight.”
We had the pleasure of chatting with Muñoz via email, to learn about her inspiration for her new book, her most valuable life lessons, and her hopes for current and future generations of women of color striving to succeed in these uncertain times as they navigate the often unfair professional landscape they are faced with. Her book More than Ready: Be Strong and Be You . . . and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise could not have come at a better time, because more than ever before women, especially women of color, need all the tools and inspiration they can get to rise up amongst the madness of 2020 and beyond.
What first inspired you to write More Than Ready: Be Strong and Be You … and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise? When did you first realize that your experiences and your insight could be invaluable to other women of color?
I didn’t set out to write a book when I first left the White House; I was focused on doing work that I hoped would make a difference. Several women in my life pushed me to think about what I might have to say, and I mostly did what women do: I thought, “No, because really, what do I really have to say that might be of any value to anybody?” In the end, I realized that I actually speak in public about my experience all the time, and I tell the same stories because they resonate. And when I speak, invariably someone comes up to me afterwards, and 100% of the time that person is a woman, and most of the time she is a woman of color. And she says something like, “Thank you for saying that thing; I thought I was the only one.” Thinking about those women is what ultimately gave me the impetus to believe that I actually did have something to say. And once I gave myself permission to believe it, I knew exactly what would be in all ten chapters of the book.
How do you suggest women of color deal with the haters who believe that they are only in their roles to check off the “diversity box” or that they only were given opportunities because of their ethnicity?
Those people aren’t always haters, but they are frequently pretty ignorant, or at least ill-informed. I had a pretty public experience that I recount in the book; one of the people that I reported to publicly objected to my promotion to the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. I let it affect my confidence, and I spent two of the five years I was in that job worrying about whether other colleagues thought the same thing. What’s more, every one of the seven women that contributed stories for the book has had a similar experience. We know when people around us doubt our capacity, and it contributes to self doubt. Every one of us does the same thing: We compensate by making sure we are ultra-prepared. We work hard to avoid making mistakes; we walk into a room knowing that we have to do the job better than anyone else lest people think we’re not qualified. It’s not fair, but it’s true.
But I have also learned to find strength in knowing that a room with us in it is more likely to arrive at good decisions because we are part of making them. There are reams of evidence that having diversity at the table leads to better results. So, I tell people, “The folks at the table with you may not know that they need what you bring, but they absolutely need what you bring. Make sure you walk into the room secure in that knowledge.”
One of your key points in your book is that women of color have a unique perspective to offer, and valuable insight and experience to bring to their career. Why do you think that for so long, minority women have been convinced (or convinced themselves) that their voice doesn’t matter?
We absorb so many signals throughout our lives that tell us that we are less than, that we are not enough. Look at the debate we just finished having in the democratic primary: We were actually discussing whether a woman could be “electable” to our nation’s highest office when there were several extremely capable women in the race. How many little girls absorbed that message? Our examples of leaders and leadership styles are mostly male examples. People actually complain about the tone of radio announcers’ voices when they are female. It’s absolutely everywhere.
I recount in my book that I took deliberate steps to compensate for the fact that I am short, that I am a Latina, that I am soft spoken, because I concluded that these factors would make my colleagues take me less seriously. I didn’t make it up; it was true. I wrote a whole chapter in More Than Ready about kindness because it isn’t understood as a leadership quality. I think that’s just wrong. Much of what I explore in the book is the notion that, not only are we enough as we are, but the world needs us right now!
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are currently facing unprecedented uncertainty and challenges in the workforce, as millions of people are filing for unemployment and the economy is struggling. How do you think your book and your advice to women of color is more important and more relevant than ever before?
Any of us, before we even began to see the data, could have predicted who was going to be hardest hit by the virus and the economic catastrophe that has accompanied it. Communities of color are bearing the brunt for all kinds of reasons. We’re the workers who are still showing up to pick vegetables, sell groceries, care for our elders, and drive buses, even when we lack the equipment to keep us safe. We are more likely to live in communities that are more crowded, in precarious housing where social distancing is a luxury that we can’t afford. We’re more likely to lack access to health care, to broadband that lets us work from home. The educational disparities that affect our children may widen because so many of us lack access to broadband and the equipment that makes on-line schooling possible. This crisis is exposing so many of the ways that we have failed each other as a society.
It is also exposing what we have to do, and I believe we are the people who will do it. We now have a better picture of who the essential workers are in our society; it is we who will fight for them to receive the wages they deserve. We know full well how educational disparities are going to open up, how the crisis in housing intersects with a crisis in access to health care. Those problems aren’t going to fix themselves; they are our fight. We can see more clearly now that government matters. That government belongs to us; it’s time to fight for one that actually sees and respects us and works with us to change things.
What do you hope women of color and future generations of minority women will take away from your book?
There are several places in the book where I give advice to my younger self, or lay out strategies that the women that I spoke to and I all use in times of fear and doubt. It boils down to finding a way to make a contribution, whether that’s your job or community work outside of your job, and trusting that what you know just by virtue of being who you are is an important contribution. Even though women of color are leading all the time, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, we have beens socialized not to think of ourselves as leaders. It’s time to understand and present ourselves as the leaders that we already are, because the world very much needs what we bring.
More than Ready: Be Strong and Be You . . . and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise is out now, and is not only a great, inspiring and eye-opening read, but it’s also an essential read for women of color during these troubling times.