I––like so many of you––was overcome with emotion when I heard that Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States was confirmed.
What an exciting, history-making moment! And at the same time, what a painful process to watch. While there’s nothing new about a woman of color having to reestablish her authority again and again and AGAIN, it didn’t make it any less hard to watch. And while it was beautiful and gratifying to see Justice Jackson triumph, it was also a (re)traumatizing experience for many women of color.
The process reaffirmed two big learning opportunities for me: one good and the other….not so much.
A model for business leaders: Name who is missing
I had the honor of speaking about Justice Jackson’s nomination with reporter Ephrat Livni for the New York Times’ DealBook. What stood out to me is the intentionality President Biden has shown in naming who is missing. He’s been clear since his run for president that he would intentionally nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Organizations and their leaders can learn from that: name who’s not represented. When we aren’t intentional and explicit about increasing representation, we default to our biases. The result? A pledge to “hire for more diversity” becomes hiring a few more white women, and little changes. I appreciate that President Biden didn’t shy away from naming the need for Black women to be represented in the Supreme Court. I urge leaders in other sectors to follow his lead.
The “Pet to Threat” Phenomenon
But, once you name who is missing and commit to having them represented, you really, really have to show you have their back. I really am excited about Justice Jackson’s confirmation. I and many others hope this will lead to our Supreme Court’s decisions reflecting the true diversity of this country. But amid the celebrations, we can’t forget the way she was treated (particularly when you compare the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh). Dr. Kecia M. Thomas’ groundbreaking work on the “Pet to Threat” phenomenon comes to mind. As Erika Stallings quotes Dr. Thomas: “I think in every career trajectory there comes an opportunity for a promotion or leadership, where the individual has a level of influence or power to make significant changes and to rethink how business is done. That’s when women are probably most vulnerable to getting recast as threatening, because their colleagues are pushing back on the person legitimately exerting their influence in the workplace” (my emphasis). An overqualified woman of color getting unanimous support for a District Court nomination but becoming a “threat” when she’s an exemplary Supreme Court nominee is a prime example. If you are appalled by the way the confirmation hearings progressed, please do the urgent work of looking around you and reflecting on how often this happens in your workplaces all day, every day, and your role in being a vocal champion and the person who shuts down bias.
Now, I want to hear from you! Have you witnessed the “pet to threat” phenomenon unfold in your own career or a colleagues’? Or, have you seen someone intentionally and explicitly identify who’s representation is missing at work or in leadership? Please share your stories!