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Here’s the most important advice from executive-level women of color today

·Senior Producer/Reporter

While companies are increasingly diversifying their workforces, it can still be tough for women with diverse backgrounds to climb to the top. Today, women of color make up 18% of the US population, and a third of the female workforce. Yet less than 5% are in executive positions, according to a recent report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Working Mother magazine has for years recognized corporations leading the way with diversity efforts at every management level. Its annual list of Best Companies for Multicultural Women, published this week, highlights 25 companies at the forefront of recruiting, retaining and advancing diverse women.

These companies -- led by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, IBM (IBM), Procter & Gamble (PG), Prudential Financial (PRU), and Verizon (VZ) -- won top honors for sponsoring and promoting women of color and offering affinity programs to help educate and develop their careers.

92% of the best companies embed diversity & inclusion into the business growth strategy and 96% of those listed require diversity metrics dedicated to advancing women of color.

"Even at the best companies, women [of color] lose their representation as they move up the ranks," said Jennifer Owens, editorial director for Working Mother media. Multicultural women represent 21% of the entire workforce at these best companies, but by the time they move up the ladder to corporate executive-level, only 4% remain.

"You have a workplace and consumer base that is growing increasingly diverse. To be the smartest most effective company you need to know how to speak to them," states Owens.

Yahoo Finance invited several of the women working at some of these companies to find out how they’ve been able to climb up the ranks while embracing their authentic selves.

Here are some of the key tips they shared for getting ahead.

Always sit at the table
Every single woman we interviewed spoke extensively about making the choice to sit at the table, and not retreat to the sidelines at work. “Not only do I have to work hard and make sure my work is impeccable, but I have to really think about how I show up, what type of executive presence I exude, because people are constantly judging,” said Michele Meyer-Shipp, Prudential’s Chief Diversity Officer.

And you don’t need to wait your turn to speak. This doesn’t always feel natural if you’ve been raised to work hard, keep your head down and be deferential to higher-ups. But women have to step outside their comfort zones and practice speaking up in larger groups. The more you practice and better prepared you are for meetings, the more natural it will feel over time.

Earlier on in her career, Deepa Purushothaman, now a partner at Deloitte, was pulled out of a meeting by a senior partner, who asked why she wasn’t speaking up. “He gave me the advice and the feedback that I needed to speak up more and that sometimes my quietness, my hesitation, was a career limiter,” Purushothaman told Yahoo Finance. Over the years, she’s practiced using a louder voice at meetings and has found a level that feels comfortable for her.

For Angela Chen, a senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers, being specific about the feedback she was seeking has helped her be more effective in communicating in meetings. Instead of asking, “How do you think that went?,” she uses a more direct approach and asks, “Do you think my point about X and Y came across to this person?”

Speak up, but be even better at listening

Being a good listener and sharing personal details can help establish common ground with just about anyone. Not only is it a good business practice, but it also helps bring your whole identity into the work you do.

“People can see right through phony. I am authentic, but before I put myself out there, I ask a lot of questions to size up the audience I’m talking to,” says Meyer-Shipp. Understanding the tone of the room helps her figure out whether to be direct on an issue or if she has to temper her delivery.

Doris Gonzalez, IBM’s Director of Corporate Leadership, thought she had to keep her sense of humor at home to be taken more seriously at work. “I felt that I had to have two personas. But I felt like I was leading a double life and was starting to be unhappy, so I decided to bring my whole self,” she said.

Find mentors and sponsors with different backgrounds

When you feel supported, you’ll inevitably also feel more optimistic about the way your careering is going. So it’s not surprising that multicultural women with mentors or sponsors said they were much more satisfied with their employers than those without mentors.

If your company doesn’t offer a program that partners you up with a mentor, you should seek out advisors of all backgrounds for feedback and advice.

“I’ve found that I’ve needed different mentors to help me navigate different aspects of my career at all different stages. I don’t know what I would do without them,” Meyer-Shipp said.
All 2016 Best Companies offer mentoring to multicultural women, and specifically target those early in their careers.

With an eye toward paying it forward, Gonzalez currently has 12 mentees that she meets with regularly each month. “If you are in a leadership position, it’s your responsibility to lift others,” she said. In some cases, her mentees have surpassed her own corporate success and Gonzalez shares that with pride: “It doesn’t matter, it’s your duty and privilege to lift them above you, and I am proud that there have been a few of those.”