The barriers blocking women of color from top positions in PR were the subject of a spirited panel discussion at the 2017 ColorComm (C2) Conference in Miami, a business retreat that brought together more than 400 women of color who are communications professionals.

Lisa Osborne RossLisa Osborne Ross

Led by Lisa Osborne Ross, managing director of APCO Worldwide’s D.C. headquarters, the discussion presented a look at those barriers from the point of view of both current top executives and of the women of color who want to dismantle the roadblocks that often bar their access to those positions.

The panelists included Mildred Galvin, senior VP of talent development at FleishmanHillard; Soom Mee Kim, executive VP and global diversity & inclusion lead at Porter Novelli; and Trisch Smith, executive VP and managing director of diversity & inclusion at Edelman.

Brad Staples, CEO at APCO; Brad MacAfee, CEO at Porter Novelli; John Saunders, CEO at FleishmanHillard; and Matthew Harrington, COO at Edelman represented PR firm leadership.

Ross relating her feedback from  previous ColorComm conferences. “I was shocked to find that so many believed that they would never reach the highest levels of our industry.”

Galvin stressed that a focus on inclusivity and diversity does not entail a “second-best” mentality. “Hiring for diversity does not mean less than,” she said. Smith added that diversity in and of itself is not enough—a general atmosphere of openness and opportunity should prevail. “Diversity without inclusivity,” she said, “is moot.”

Staples addressed “unintentional bias” and how it affects the decision-making process for many execs. “I do believe that if we as leaders are going to overcome that particular challenge, it starts with a belief that business is done better, the business will thrive and be more successful as a function of having a workforce that represents its client base,” he said. 

“What I take away from the conversation,” said Harrington, “is not just the importance of listening and not even of intent. It’s about action. If we are fortunate to be invited back next year, I would expect you to ask us, ‘So, what have you done? What has changed?”