In her 20 years as a diversity advocate, Elizabeth Williams-Riley has heard some deeply backwards attitudes expressed by workshop participants. “A woman’s place is in the kitchen,” is one that tends to come up more often than you would think, she says. But she still has hope that the future holds greater equality for men and women, and for people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations, than in the past. That’s because she believes individual people have the power to fight against prejudice, racism, and discrimination.
Williams-Riley, who is the president and CEO of the American Conference on Diversity, will speak Thursday, November 13, at the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce at 8:30 a.m. at the Imperia in Somerset. The event is $95 for members, $130 for nonmembers. For more information, visit www.mrcc.org call 732-745-8090, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
“What I’m going to do is talk about the individual power and the collective power that women have to transform and make things better for our society,” she says. “I’m really going to get people to hone in on their individual positions of power and influence, and talk about using the power among us to create lasting change.”
Williams-Riley grew up in Orlando, Florida, which she jokingly describes as “the wonderful place where Mickey Mouse was born.” Her father was an airman and later a truck driver, and her mother was a healthcare worker who currently works with special needs children. It was her mother’s participation in the Civil Rights movement that inspired her to take up the cause of social justice as a career.
“She was on the front lines, boycotting and picketing,” she says. “She was a strong advocate for equality, and she raised me to be confident in who I am.” Williams-Riley graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in advertising and public relations and went straight into the field of diversity inclusion. Her first job out of college was at a southern school district that was celebrating its 100th anniversary.
In assembling materials for its retrospective, the school pulled together a timeline of photos and realized that the school district, which was once segregated, had little to no record of its black students. Williams-Riley visited families throughout the county, collecting old yearbooks and records of people who graduated between the 1920s and 1950s, so that the story of the black students could be told.
In the early 1990s Williams-Riley left the south for a job in New York, where she joined a group called the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The nonprofit group was founded in 1927, at a time when reversing cultural divides was a much more radical agenda than it is today. The group has since changed its name to the National Conference on Community and Diversity.
Williams-Riley spent the next 20 years leading diversity workshops, organizing training seminars, and consulting with businesses and organizations on diversity issues. In 2012 she was hired as president and CEO of the New Brunswick-based nonprofit American Conference on Diversity.
Williams-Riley has helped many companies over the years increase the diversity of their workforces, and offers some general advice to organizations that want to bring on board more women or members of minority groups.
Be active. It’s not enough for companies to be willing to give equal consideration for job candidates of different backgrounds. Rather, Williams-Riley says, companies should make an active effort to recruit diverse workers.
Be ready. Companies that go out and prematurely hire employees for the sake of increasing diversity risk alienating them. “If your policies and practice are not in line with embracing them, they will come but will not stay long,” she says. “When they come on board and they are not comfortable, they don’t stay.” That applies to women, differently abled people, people with different sexual orientations, or older workers.
Subtle sexism is still sexism. Although most companies ban outright sexist policies, discrimination against women can take subtle forms that can make women feel unwelcome. “For example, when companies are trying to make strides to do some outreach to women, and men are involved in that process and are invited to go to a function that is all female, the man might say something like, `Do I need to bring my lipstick?’ A woman might laugh it off, but those kinds of sly comments are things that still permeate through different arenas,” Williams-Riley says.
Prejudice is deep rooted. Williams-Riley says many people have biased or prejudiced attitudes because they learned them as children from people they respect. In her workshops Williams-Riley tries to create an atmosphere of non-judgment so that people can express their true thoughts without fear of retribution, and learn not to keep making the same mistakes.
Dealing with prejudice is uncomfortable. Diversity workshops are famously fraught with awkwardness and opportunities for people to put their feet into their mouths. (Think of the famous “Diversity Day” scene in the sitcom “The Office.”) Williams-Riley says discomfort is a necessary part of challenging prejudice. “It’s not always easy,” she says. “You have to lean into the discomfort. It’s when you lean into the discomfort that you have a breakthrough.”
In her talk, Williams-Riley plans to encourage women not to take to heart stereotypes about women that have persisted through the ages — that women are passive, and that powerful decision-making is a man’s role, or that certain professions, like science or engineering, are only for men. She says women who go into these fields are capable of success but will likely face obstacles along the way, and that society has a long way to go before men and women can truly be considered equal.
“I think that she can do it, and she will encounter some of those things because they are so deeply rooted in our society,” she says. “You hear the statistic over and over again that women’s pay is up to 78 cents on the dollar of what men make. What kind of grade are you going to give that? That’s not a passing grade.”