Minda Harts and Julia Furlan discuss equity and demanding space for yourself in the workplace.
It has been long enough since the 2010s girlboss revolution for everyone to roll their eyes at the tired “lean in” rhetoric. You know — work extra hard! Have it all! Ignore the societal structures designed to exclude anyone who’s not a cis white dude, and just keep on achieving no matter what!!! Looking back on all that, it’s clear how myopic and privileged that entire conversation was.
Unfortunately, there’s some bad news about capitalism and its little friend the 40-hour workweek: It’s still here, no matter how many think pieces say that nobody wants to work. And with that, the power dynamics of workplace culture haven’t gone anywhere, even as society tries to figure out what work even looks like after two and a half years of a pandemic. The less sobering news is that many people are in a moment of recalibration, where imagining a different relationship to work — whether that means working from home or unionizing your workplace — just might be possible.
My conversation today is with Minda Harts, whose writing and podcast Secure the Seat finds pathways for young people of color, especially women of color, to succeed in spaces that weren’t built for them. My hope is that Minda’s clear guidance can help you to consider the ways that your workplace could be more open, more accessible, and more flexible to people of all kinds of experiences.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the 2010 era of corporate feminism and how incredibly limited it was — you know, Sheryl Sandberg stuff. I’ve been ready for whatever’s next for a long time. I wanted to start with that corporate feminism; it feels like it only applied to wealthy white women.
Absolutely. I read Lean In because everyone said it was the women’s manifesto. After I read it, I’m like, oh, this is pretty much all the other books I had just read. Yes, this is good information that I could use, but it’s actually not talking about me as a woman of color in the workplace. Who’s supporting me? Who’s talking about my experiences?
I want you to speak to that feeling of the people that you want to lift up, that you’re trying to send a life raft to, how you’re addressing that in the work that you do.
I started to think about whose voices get to be heard, and whose voices are silenced. Throughout my 15-year previous career in corporate and nonprofit industries, I always felt like my voice was silenced at the expense of my own well-being. I thought, if I’m feeling this way, there must be tons of other women who are feeling like their voices are silenced or that they can’t speak their truth. I’ve been a beneficiary of so many women that have come before me, Black women in particular, brown women in particular, who leverage their courage so that I could benefit from it in 2022 and beyond. And I thought, who’s gonna benefit from my voice? Who’s gonna benefit from my courage? If I could role model that, then the next woman could say, Hey, I don’t have to be the COO of a company. I have my voice right now.
What does using your voice look like? What are the specific things that you tried to do to address that?
For so long, I just always walked on eggshells. So I never thought that I could use my voice in the same way that the dominant culture could because when I saw someone using their voice who wasn’t from the dominant majority, then they’d get like a scarlet letter put on their forehead. So I always shied away from it.
But then I realized that if I don’t use my voice, how will people know what I need? How will I be able to change the trajectory?
For me, as a Latina person, I was afraid of being seen as sort of frivolous and loud and gregarious, which, it turns out, is part of who I am. I wonder if you had those thoughts where you were afraid of being perceived in a particular way?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Angry, feisty, docile — you know, anything that would prevent us from speaking up. And I think all those narratives were created before we even got to the workplace so that we would question ourselves.
I was never angry. I was never the stereotype that people perceive women of color and Black and brown women to be. But I was so oppressed in the day-to-day of my work that when I got home, the people who love me the best didn’t get the best of me because now I hadn’t been able to be my authentic self. I think the reason why we do need to use our voices isn’t just for the workplace, but it’s for each of us, to be healthier inside and outside the workplace.
How do you think the work-from-home pandemic lifestyle has changed the way workplace hierarchies function?
I actually think that work from home was probably the best thing that could have happened to women and people of color to some degree because, when we were in the traditional workplace, we weren’t safe at work, right? Only certain people had access to promotions and got to use their voice in the ways that they needed to, without having some of these stereotypes meeting them at every turn.
But when many people of color and women got to work from home, some of that stress was stripped away because now, we have to do the work, right? It’s not about how you wore your hair that day. It’s not necessarily about who’s who and who knew Tom when. All of those office politics were kind of stripped away and allowed people just to do their work.
There was one particular research point that came out maybe about six or eight months ago. It said that over half of Black employees felt like they belonged at their companies for the first time while working from home. I knew why: because they’re not micro- or macro-aggressed at every single turn. It makes a difference when you can just do your work.
Absolutely. And I also just want to shout out that not everyone got to work from home and that there’s a lot of privilege and power in the people who did get to work from home, and who didn’t have to be exposed to the ongoing pandemic that is still raging in this world we live in.
I want to shift and talk about power dynamics. I wonder how you think about power and how you talk about power.
Power is very important, right? But it’s almost like the word “privilege.” I think some people get afraid of it because they haven’t been necessarily using it for others. So I think it scares people away.
But when I talk about power, it’s what part of this equation can we solve? My goal is not to convince you that I’m worthy to be here. My goal is to say, “What boundaries do I need to create so I can do the best work of my career?”
For example, salary negotiation. Oftentimes as women, we’re waiting on people to tap us on the shoulder and say, “Hey, it’s your time. Here’s the raise.” But if we’ve been documenting our own work and wins, we get to also establish things and set the table with our manager. We can actually initiate those conversations with our receipts, as we say.
It’s realizing and harnessing the power that we already have and not waiting on somebody to give it to us.
One thing that I wanna talk about is a lot of the folks who might be in positions where they’re really trying to do right by the folks who have less power in their workplaces. How do you recommend someone work in that sort of middle space? How can they do right by the folks that they manage while still listening to the pressure from those higher-ups?
Partially it’s “how do I commit to everyday acts of equity as a leader?” And I think if we reset the table every day to say, “What can I do to do that?” We’re asking ourselves, “What does my team need to do their best work today?” And I think if you always keep that at the center, that’s gonna be better for productivity and better for business. Everybody is a winner if we lean into that.
I wonder, what do you do if you’re not getting equity? How do you address that?
This is a really big question. For a long time, I was waiting for equity to happen for me. Once I realized that, oh, okay, it’s never coming because I have to be a participant in creating the boundaries and the expectation that I deserve to have it.
One of those things I did was give myself permission to have conversations with people. You need to have conversations with people who might be able to help you.
At some point, I realized that I actually have to have a conversation with my manager to say, “I really like the work that I do, but I need you to help me remove some of these barriers that I did not create because I could be more productive this way with your support.”
Let me have a conversation and see if this person can meet me with some humanity. And after I’ve had that conversation, hopefully we can resolve the conflict. But if we can’t, then that’s information for me to say, I deserve another space that will give me that.
I think that one of the things that’s really tricky is knowing when a workplace is beyond repair — it wasn’t built for you, and it’s not gonna change. And you have to just find a new path.
When I was experiencing the worst of the worst in the workplace, I had to work three or four more years before I was able to leave. But what I had to do was to say, how can I reframe this? How do I now make work work for me, where I’m no longer trying to make it work for Tom and Steve every day? For me, it was taking advantage of professional development stipends, getting certified, and preparing for my next best thing. I gave myself permission to do that because I knew at some point everything will prepare me for my next thing. I just changed my mindset.
The other part of that is the documentation. Even if you don’t talk about it with your manager or with HR, are you writing that down for you so that you see there are patterns? This isn’t something that you’ve made up in your mind. Once I started to put those things on paper, when I was ready to have conversations, it was rooted in facts.
You mentioned something that is very familiar to me. My dad is an immigrant, and I took his career advice to heart. I thought that my entire job was to show up early, stay late, work three times as hard, and never ask for a single thing. I wonder how to get out of that mindset.
I’m glad you brought that up because it was the advice I got. I was a first-generation college student, and the first person in my family to work in corporate America. So for probably almost a decade, I was just grateful to be here because I’m like, I’m not gonna mess this up for me and my family.
I think the reason why we’ve been given a lot of that information is survival. Many of us come from [a mindset of] how do we survive in this country? How do we survive in the workplace?
That’s why I’m so glad we’re having this conversation because we don’t have to continue to pass on the same tools of surviving the workplace, but thriving. We have to change the narrative of what thriving looks like.
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about what you do when someone is underestimating you.
That’s a thing because many of us have — unfortunately, but not intentionally — underestimated ourselves. Because we haven’t always been encouraged to be our best in the workplace and to go after things. I think it goes back to this phrase that I always tell myself: “I belong in every room, but not every room deserves to have me.”
What do you do when other people don’t think that your work is valuable?
It really is a mindset shift. I think that before when I entered into a workplace, I was very much in an enemy state of mind. Like, why am I here? Why are they choosing me? Do I belong here? But then, I moved into this empire state of mind: Why would you question your worth? You don’t have to gaslight yourself.
But I’m not gonna spend the next 15 years of my life trying to convince you that I deserve a director title when I know that my work is valuable and it just may not be here that it’s seen.
And I think again, we sometimes think that these are the only spaces that can celebrate us. There are spaces that do see our value, but because we may not always know where they are, we get fearful.
How do you connect with the person who is going to lift you up? I remember there was a point in my career where people wanted me to be a mentor, but I think I needed a mentor. Like, I’m not ready. I want someone else to mentor me, please!
Absolutely. When I was in my former life, I used to think that if I worked hard enough, I’m gonna get the opportunity because we work in a meritocracy. And then I saw my colleagues are moving up faster, but they’re not working as hard. I realized they had a network. People were speaking their names in the rooms they weren’t in because they had a squad of people invested in their success.
That’s when my whole career shifted, saying that I can’t do this work alone. I can’t keep my head down. I gotta lift it up and I need to let people know. Eventually, as I started to build relationships, a sponsor arose.
I think that’s partially putting ourselves out there to let people know what we’re doing, because if we want more out of our career, people need to know what we’re doing.
You gotta ask for help. It’s not shameful. It’s not frivolous if you say to someone, hi, I haven’t gone up in my current company. I gotta leave or something needs to change.
And the other side of that is that it’s a really nice thing to do for the people whose work you respect and admire, to just say their name, and guess what? It’s not your job to get them a job necessarily, but you can say, like, “Hey, I can’t take on this work right now, but here are three of my people who I know would do a great job.”
Listen, amen to all of that. I think what trips a lot of people up is that they feel like you have to be like in the C-suite or you have to have some level of influence. We all have the capacity to speak someone else’s name in the room.
But what I will say is my career shifted when I built relationships with people inside the office. From the executive assistant to the janitor, to the HR, to the tech support.
And when I started to expand my reach in different places, then people thought of me for things. It’s not, oh, we have to go to happy hour or we gotta go to online bingo. No, this is for us, for people to see our names and see our faces and that helps with our career trajectory.
Before we wrap, I want to ask you for some clear pieces of practical advice.
No. 1: Success is not a solo sport, meaning that you need people on your team. If you are the captain of your team, who else can help you move forward? Maybe you don’t have a full squad right now, but one or two people that you could start to connect with or ask for a virtual coffee. That’s No. 1.
No. 2 is: Ask for what you want. I think that sometimes we get afraid, and that’s normal. We can’t control what the response is, but if we never ask for what we want, then we never know what it could be. Because if you’re not advocating for yourself, who will? So self advocacy is part of self-care and self-love.
And then No. 3 is healing. If you have experienced trauma in the workplace, give yourself time to heal and rebuild, because we don’t want you to miss out on a future workplace that could give you that dignity, equity, and respect that you’ve always wanted and should have gotten from the get-go.
That is so true. I feel like people really think that because it happened in an office, it isn’t traumatizing in a particular way. But I think some of the worst bullying that I ever experienced happened in a workplace.
Healing from that was really hard! I have a lot of friends who have been injured psychically in their workplaces. It’s really hard to recognize and put words on it because sometimes it’s the institution that’s injuring you. Because it’s in a workplace, people use euphemisms. There are words that we use in the workplace that feel unemotional. But actually, work is really emotional.
It’s really emotional, and we spend so much time at our jobs and you can’t bring your authentic self to work if you’re not healthy. And so, it’s really important for us to make sure that we’re holistically, not going back to normal, but to better.
I have one more question. I don’t intend to focus on white men in power, but on the off chance that they’re listening: Hi Tom, Eric, Joe.
Welcome. What’s one thing that you want that proverbial white guy in power to do for the people of color in their office?
My work is really based on equity, and when we talk about equity, it’s not musical chairs. My goal is not to remove every white man in power, it’s to expand the table and to create equity. And I think that right now, many white men have positions of power. So I would ask them to think about the seat that they sit in and how they can make it better for somebody else and bring in a chair along with them.
I think we all have a responsibility to make someone else’s seat safer. And if you hold most of the seats, what are you doing to make the rest of your community that you work with feel safe and feel that they have access? I think we all have a duty in the workplace to make it better than we found it. And I hope that they will lean into that.
To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Will you support Vox’s explanatory journalism?
Millions turn to Vox to educate themselves, their family, and their friends about what’s happening in the world around them, and to learn about things that spark their curiosity. Financial contributions from our readers are a critical part of supporting our resource-intensive work and help us keep our journalism free for all. Please consider making a one-time contribution to Vox today.
We accept credit card, Apple Pay, and Google Pay. You can also contribute via