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Deepa Purushothaman: Being first need not be “the only”

Deepa Purushothaman shares with John Baldoni the challenges women of color have long faced in the corporate world and what needs to change.

5 min read


Image of a woman sitting at her work computer for article about Deepa Purushothaman

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A conversation with a friend about the difficulties women can face when loading luggage into overhead compartment bins on airplanes got Deepa Purushothaman thinking about how women do not seem to fit into a world designed by men. She is 5-foot-1. She is also Indian American and understands women like her do not fit into the corporate world.

This realization led Purushothaman to look at how the struggles that other women of color – educated, talented and successful – face in the workplace. As the first Indian American to make partner at Deloitte, she knew the situation firsthand. Her story, and her interviews with over 500 women of color, are told in a new book, “The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.

Challenges facing women of color

Purushothaman, in an interview with me, revealed that too many minority women internalize the problem to feel that the issue is with them, not the organization.

She tells the story of how, when she made partner, a white male colleague who also had made partner told that her career (unlike his) was assured because she was a “twofer” — a woman and of color.

“It really speaks to how for women of color we can be kind of going about our business and things are said to us or around us … [that] make us feel like we don’t belong. There is a real questioning of our worthiness.”

Women of color often face extra scrutiny and pressure. For example, one of the women Purushothaman interviewed said: “I feel really responsible for representing my entire race with all my white colleagues. ‘Cause I’m the only Black person that many of my white colleagues have ever met. And so I edit what I wear, what I talk about, what I eat, how I wear my hair.”

“And she went through this long list and hadn’t really realized the weight of what that was,” Purushothaman says.

Feeling more pressure

Being in the minority can be stressful, Purushothaman says. “Two of three women of color that I interviewed had mysterious illnesses. And I think it comes from not being seen and heard in structures.

“I think it’s the weight of what is happening to us. … Some of the research that we have done suggests that for women of color, there’s an element of trauma and at real heaviness around the weight of balancing all these things that is very different and showing up very differently in our bodies.”

These conclusions are consistent with other research on the physical toll that bias exacts in the workplace.

Code-switching — adopting a persona of what’s expected in the workplace — is commonplace. It is also exhausting. Purushothaman likens it to speaking in another language, something she did when worked in Latin America.

Because there are fewer role models, some women of color cannot imagine themselves in more senior roles. “Then when you end up in these corporate structures and you’re told to be more assertive or more aggressive … or less emotional … [These things] reinforce that leadership looks different than us.”

All of this adds to levels of apartness, as well as stress.

Corporate leaders are receptive to the ideas of change, but as Purushothaman says, “You can’t just hold [a meeting] and say, tell me how you feel, and then everyone’s going to magically share. A lot of our HR processes are not set up to take in discrimination or [permit] people to report racism.”

And if cases are reported, there can be “retribution and sidelining.”

On a positive note, Purushothaman told me that executives who have received early copies of the book are reaching out to her seeking her advice on how they and their companies can better address the issues facing women of color.

Reimaging power

The final chapter of “The First, The Few, The Only” is titled “The New Rules of Power.” Purushothaman’s view of power is an inversion of stereotypical views; this “new model” of power is one directed for the benefit of others not simply themselves.

“The women I met are ambitious. They do want power, but they want power, if it’s helpful, if it’s a multiplier, if it’s positive, if it’s altruistic … and if it’s community-oriented.”

As Purushothaman says: “We can remake power, we can remake leadership, we can redefine success. We don’t have to the models that come before us, but we have to do some work to get there because again, the things we are taught I think are flawed and need to be remade.”

Purushothaman believes there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the discrimination women of color face in the workplace. Instead, what is required is a sense of psychological safety for women of color to feel free enough to speak openly and honestly and for those in positions of authority to listen and find ways to make positive changes.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and the author of many books, including “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us,” “MOXIE,” “Lead With Purpose,” “Lead Your Boss” and “The Leader’s Pocket Guide.” In 2018, Trust Across America awarded Baldoni its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of global leadership experts. Check out Baldoni’s leadership resource website

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