Executive Vice Dean Soto-Greene Shares Advice for Women Leaders in Light of Inauguration of First Woman Vice President
Today, history will be made. During Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021, the first woman, and person of color, will become the Vice President of the United States. Regardless of political affiliation, it will be a moment of extraordinary achievement that represents excellence in leadership within the second-highest executive office in the land. And while the United States elected its first African American president in 2008, no woman, regardless of race/ethnicity, has reached the office of the vice presidency. It is the cross-section of diversity and recognizing the accomplishments of a woman of color in leadership that resonate most with Dr. Maria Soto-Greene, executive vice dean of New Jersey Medical School.
Reaching the upper rungs of leadership, while rewarding, can be an arduous journey. Soto-Greene attests to the fact that, for women of color, the path can be rife with obstacles and hurdles that other women and male colleagues have to endure. Reflecting back on the early days of her own career as a doctor, Soto-Greene recalls the first hurdle that she had to overcome was being fully recognized as a woman in medicine. Despite earning her medical degree and completing residency training, upon entering the workplace, she recalls that patients and colleagues often assumed that she was not a physician. A few decades later, Soto-Greene says that she still hears stories of these same challenges from women faculty physicians.
For women of color, the minutiae of daily life can often create career pitfalls. Trivial details, such as how one chooses to wear her hair, can become roadblocks to success. Seemingly innocuous characteristics including vernacular and tone become cultural cues that trigger scrutiny and the unnecessary burden of being representative of all women of that particular race.
"The pressure is always on for professional women of color. We are not given the same latitude as many of our colleagues to be viewed and perceived individually," says Soto-Greene. "The 'minority tax' is a phrase that describes the encumbrance of always needing to be excellent. There is little margin for error."
Soto-Greene listed additional challenges that women of color may experience as they grow in their careers include microaggressions, harassment, burnout, lack of access to networks, racial and gendered coded language, implicit biases, and discrimination. Regardless of profession, women of color may encounter one or a combination of these impediments. Nevertheless, Soto-Greene believes that none of these pitfalls are insurmountable.
"In the workplace, while there have been a lot of inroads made around the gender gap, women of color still fare worse," says Soto-Greene. "Through the lens of intersectionality, which examines both race and gender, we can find ways to help each other to make a truly inclusive space. The historical moment that the inauguration represents should serve as a call to action that we can, and should, do more to help women of color reach extraordinary heights within their careers."
Focusing on solutions to many of these challenges, Soto-Greene says that the path to success doesn't have to be linear. There is a myriad of factors that can contribute to reaching those career goals, including access to formal education and training, and cultivating supportive work environments.
As a leading academic research institution, New Jersey Medical School provides fertile ground to sow the seeds of education. Soto-Greene, as a graduate of the NJMS class of '80, epitomizes how education can become a catalyst to success in leadership. Given her prominent role in the school's administration, Soto-Greene has also helped to establish NJMS as a workplace that supports growth and development at all levels.
"At NJMS, several principles that we espouse – equity and humanism – support, inspire, and encourage all of our students, especially women of color, to excel in their careers," added Soto-Greene. "Further, I've strived to encourage and create judgment-free zones in which we can learn with, about, and from each other as adopted by my interprofessional colleagues."
Resolutely, Soto-Greene said that she challenges anyone who claims that they've grown their career without the help of others.
"Support for women of color in the workplace has to be more intentional and explicit if we're going to change the paradigm in medicine and other professions," says Soto-Greene. "We must overtly and enthusiastically bring people along as we advance; and that will require a lot of hard work on everyone's part."
Expanding more on intentionally providing support, Soto-Greene pointed to the recently developed Alliance for Minority Residents and Fellows and "Women of Excellence" program at NJMS for students, faculty, and residents who are women of color. Comprised of a diverse group of women, the program gives women an opportunity to peel back the layers of identity, parsing through intersectionality, to work together to recognize each other's humanity while finding solutions to similar challenges that they face on a regular basis.
For Soto-Greene, it is the various dimensions of racial/ethnic and gender diversity that Vice President Kamala Harris represents, as well as her career accomplishments, that make her an inspiration for women. Harris identifies as African American, Indian and Asian American, and is the daughter of two immigrants to the United States. By virtue of who she is and what she has achieved, Harris has shattered a number of "firsts," including being the first biracial vice president.
Applying the significance of what Vice President Harris' historical moment represents, within any given workplace that is committed to values that promote racial justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to Soto-Greene, the question then becomes: how do we unite and support women of color to become leaders to reach the height of their professions?
Upon examining what has contributed to her own success in leadership as a woman of color, Soto-Greene offers the following three pearls of wisdom: 1) learn how to find your own voice; 2) enlist the support of allies; and 3) actively develop areas of courage, caring, compassion, and community.
"Applying these three tips to help guide one's life, really then becomes the same concepts that will translate into actionable and natural steps that will open the doorway for women of color," says Soto-Greene. Watch this video to learn more about how to apply these tips.
Soto-Greene acknowledges that not all women of color have the same experiences throughout their careers. Nevertheless, she champions the ongoing process of growth and development, and celebrating big wins, such as becoming vice president of the United States, and small wins, like making the decision to become a doctor, alike.