I was on vacation when I heard about the resignation of Dr. Claudine Gay after only six months as Harvard’s first Black president. It’s been bothering me ever since, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it during what was meant to be a restful, rejuvenating trip.

I’m back at my desk now, but still can’t stop thinking about Dr. Gay. What happened to her strikes me as all-too common and emblematic of our culture’s attitude towards Black women in leadership.

In November, I wrote an article about When being labeled “the first” distracts from genuine belonging. I talked about what it means to celebrate professional successes due to someone being the first person with their identity to achieve something (first Black CEO, first queer elected official, etc). Often, this comes at the expense of acknowledging their actual qualifications, and all the hard work that got them to where they are today (in the case of Black women, often much more work than their white male counterparts). It is chilling to me that all of the Black women I mentioned in the article were promoted to leadership positions but forced out – often amid serious targeting and threats – after a very short time at the helm.

So many Black women have experienced this phenomenon. I’ve seen it myself many times during my own career: women and people of color get promoted to leadership positions during tough times, but are unable to succeed because of a fundamental lack of support and resources from these companies and organizations. It’s so common that we even have a name for it: the Glass Cliff. When Black women are tasked with leading major organizations in times of distress but not provided with the support required to do so, burnout follows swiftly – and often more sinister consequences.

Dr. Claudine Gay has had to face much worse than run-of-the-mill burnout: the accusations of plagiarism, nitpicking, and painful review of her professional work have been found to be totally baseless. Of the University Presidents asked to testify in front of Congress – all of whom faced intense criticism – Dr. Gay was the only one whose entire career has been called into question like this. Being unnecessarily dragged through the mud like that can really weigh on a person. I was deeply impressed by the thoughtful, professional response from Dr. Gayherself, especially since it has become more and more clear that she was targeted because she was a Black woman.

I don’t want to promote any of the hateful words spread by conservative pundits about Dr. Gay as a “symbol” for DEI, except to say that these comments feel like desperate attempts to wrench back control in a changing world. We know that diversity, inclusion, and belonging are here to stay. There are mountains of evidence to show that employees want to work for companies and organizations that value where they come from, support them, and lift them up.

For those of us who unapologetically support DEI, there’s an opportunity here for a more meticulous conversation about how we can move forward.

For instance, there is so much more that organizations can do to embrace intersectionality. I recently reshared a post from Dr. Elisa Glick about how we need to pay closer attention to the intersections between antisemitism and racism while also fiercely supporting Black women in leadership (I’d even add sexism in here). I completely agree and I also believe we can do more to think critically about how DEI initiatives sometimes conflate race with other facets of identity, which I talk a lot about in the Leading Below the Surface™ Podcast episode on Affirmative Action.

At the end of the day, at Change Coaches we’re always having conversations about what DEI is, and what it should be. That’s a conversation we’re also having right now as a society, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing! In a lot of ways, Dr. Gay’s resignation made me feel angry, upset, and frustrated. But those emotions also open a doorway towards imagining what the world could be like if things changed.

Organizations need to get more proactive and cultivate real Below the Surface leadership in 2024 in order to keep up with our changing world – and it’s up to many of us to help them get there. We are tasked with the hard work of complicating the status quo. By inviting in nuance to guide professionals as they process difficult world events, a shifting work environment, and new challenges, I believe we can continue to make a difference.

How can Change Coaches help organizations re-center towards genuine belonging?

There are a few ways you can engage with us: