Interview Kay Fabella
We are bringing you an interview with Kay Fabella, a DEI Consultant and Remote Team Strategist. Kay is passionate about the gender equality topic and in past years she has worked with multiple companies including the IMF, Philips, Red Hat, and PepsiCo, to improve inclusivity, communication, and diversity. As Filipina American, Kay draws from her own lived experiences as a “multihyphenate” woman of color, a daughter of immigrants, and an immigrant herself to build bridges for belonging. She believes that more inclusive workplace cultures start with sharing non-linear stories — to expand worldviews and increase connectivity and collaboration. With her company, Inclusion in Progress, Kay works with companies to create equitable workplaces. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Thrive Global.
Why have you decided to work in the field of a gender equity balance at the workplace?
As a woman, a woman of color, a daughter of immigrants and an immigrant myself, I care deeply about the intersectional inclusion of ALL women — regardless of race, gender identity, age, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, religion, native language or background. I’m often an “only” in many rooms that I walk into, and I know all too well the obstacles that women across the spectrum face in a world where many of us are still not considered equal, where gender representation for people who look like us is still lacking. I’m also keenly aware of how many women have fought and advocated for greater representation at work, and am honored to carry the torch to continue the work they’ve started. The more that I work with clients and global teams on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), the more I see how important it is to design solutions that raise the floor for historically excluded and underrepresented groups in and out of the workplace, while remembering not to see all women as a monolith. For example, while women in the US lost 12.1 million jobs between February and April last year, the unemployment rate in December 2020 was 11.4% for women with disabilities, 9.1% for Hispanic/Latinx women and 8.4% for Black women compared to 6.3% for women on average. These subtleties and nuances matter in understanding how to lift voices and raise floors for women. As Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Do people understand your profession or DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is a term that a general public is still not familiar with?
Before the coronavirus pandemic, work cultures had a tendency to force us to separate “personal” from “professional”… until we were all forced to work from home and there was, quite literally, no separation of either! But I would say that DEI took on renewed fervor in 2020 in the wake of our global reckoning with race more than the pandemic itself. In my birth country, the US, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, and so many more, the Black Lives Matter movement spurred on conversations about systemic racism, and how those systems of oppression compound for women of color, particularly Black women. We’ve also seen how anti-Asian xenophobia has been on the rise across the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic (which I’ve unfortunately experienced on a personal level), and how racial trauma also affects other employee populations of color in the workplace. DEI is not new, and I’m hopeful that one year on, more companies are having these discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion more openly than before. My hope is that the conversations continue to be backed up by sustained systemic and behavioral change, without pitting individual minority groups against one another in a game of “Oppression Olympics”. The work of DEI is nuanced, challenging, and ever-evolving and requires all hands on deck. People will remember how companies treated them in 2020, and beyond. I think that equity-minded companies have a unique opportunity to take the lessons we learned, and innovate around how they support their teams as the pandemic dissipates, which will only set their organizations up to thrive in the long run.
What are the current barriers in achieving gender equity at the workplace?
Most organizations were designed for a specific population as a reflection of the social dynamics of the times they were created in. Before women were allowed to vote, hold property, land or wealth, who was historically represented in these workplaces? Which segment of the population started out as employees, became managers, and then went onto lead companies long before other members of the population could participate in the workforce? Because of this, the further you are from that straight, White European, able-bodied male “center”, the more ground you have to cover to achieve equity at work — especially when you add in intersecting factors such as racial discrimination, ableism, accentism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and more. What I’ve learned in my work with companies is that there is no passive way to create inclusion for our increasingly diverse workforce.
What are the steps companies & organizations could take to create a more inclusive working environment?
To start and sustain your DEI journey, do your due diligence to understand both systems and behaviors that could serve as potential barriers to inclusion. First, it’s important to understand the history of how workplaces were designed, so we recognize what we’ve inherited and the collective responsibility we have to reshape them. This commitment to inclusion should be led top-down, modeled by senior leadership. Second, we should encourage our teams to remember that bias isn’t just something hardwired in how our brains think — it’s the air we breathe. I’m a DEI practitioner who actively, tirelessly, and consciously designs interventions for more inclusion, but who has unconsciously inherited behaviors, beliefs and blind spots from generations long before I existed. Should I give up every time I recognize those blind spots? Or should I sit in the discomfort of that lesson, recognize what I can do to interrupt those patterns, commit to my accountability, and aim to do better next time? Finally, it’s important for companies to create cultures of psychological safety for teams, to collaborate AND to collide while working alongside each other in a way that’s respectful. These cultures hinge on trust and transparency, and are the foundation for building inclusion at work.
Do organisations nowadays understand the importance of diversity training?
Organizations are recognizing the importance of diversity training — which can only work when delivered as part of a long-term, intentional inclusion strategy. If you were required to sign up for an unconscious bias training once, but then continue to perpetuate microaggressions or gendered behavior towards your team members, how effective will that training really be? This type of training must be supported and sustained through long-term learning and development for employees, when it’s modeled by senior leaders and managers across the company, and when it’s done alongside systemic interventions to create psychological safety among employees (i.e., a clear plan in place for how to safely report microaggressions or harassment at work).
Does gender equity balance at the workplace vary based on geographical location?
Gender equity also depends greatly on geographic location because our workplaces are reflections of the societies they are rooted in. If you work in a country where women are still not encouraged to seek education or employment, you will see a reflection of that in how your team looks and operates. This is often a critical piece in the DEI conversation that goes overlooked. You can’t set targets for gender representation at work based on your employee population at your San Francisco or New York City HQ office, and apply it to satellite offices in cities or countries everywhere, expecting the same results. It’s also important to recognize that women face different cultural norms and attitudes around access to education, caregiving duties, housework and gender roles depending on where they are in the world, which could affect their engagement and performance at work. Organizations with global teams need to be mindful of these factors when strategizing for gender equity.
What is the impact of a pandemic on gender equity at the workplace, and how do you see the future of gender equity & inclusion in the next years?
We know that working mothers, women of color, women with disabilities and those in senior leadership are facing unique challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Women in the Workplace 2020 report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving their jobs due to COVID-19. Reasons given include caregiving pressures at home on top of jobs, or the fact that women make the majority of the workforce in most service-based industries. Burnout is now a real thing for most working women since they’re expected to be “always on” in increasingly pressurized workplaces, and at home caring for children or elders, among other household responsibilities. The pandemic is threatening to undo all the progress we’ve made toward gender equity in the workplace. If we lose most or all of the women at work today, we lose out on future leaders and diminish our ability to hire the best talent in the decades to come. Because lack of representation in senior leadership positions conditions how job candidates see a company’s commitment to DEI… and whether or not they choose to work with the organization. The good news is that there is still plenty of opportunity for organizations to recommit to gender equity, increase representation and retention of diverse female talent during the pandemic, and align with a company’s larger DEI initiatives and commitment to inclusion. I discussed this in much more depth for our Inclusion in Progress podcast episode, “Why Retaining Female Talent is Crucial to the Future of Work” here.