The gentlemen around me burst into a guffaw of laughter. We are all standing in a circle facing one man with a shiny name tag plastered across the left breast pocket of his navy suit coat. It reads, “Johnathan Smith” followed by “Savior Health Hospital” underneath. A few of the men, a mix of classmates and strangers, shuffle their feet and nervously run their hands over their slacks, always smiling convincingly to the man in the Navy suit.
We are at a networking event. When I first approached Johnathan, a lone figure at the corner of the room, I felt exhilarated and confident with only a healthy dash of nervousness. I had been looking at Savior Health Hospital for a while now, and here was my chance to make a strong first impression to show them who I am, what I’ve got, and maybe get my foot in the door for a future career.
But that was ten minutes ago. And now, as I am being slowly pushed out of the circle that has formed around us, I feel small and negligible. I try to speak up and push my way back in, but the conversation has turned to last night’s Tiger’s game and I know nothing about baseball. At 5’3”, I suddenly feel as if the people in the circle – once fellow colleagues – are towering over me like vultures. I look around the circle and cannot find my reflection. I am short, brown, and a woman. I do not belong here.
What am I doing here? I ask myself. I turn away and slip silently from the group. I know I will not be missed.
As a Master of Public Health student in Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan, I have found a second home with my School of Public Health (SPH) family. My professors, peers, and school administration have welcomed me into the diverse culture that thrives at SPH. When I am at school, I feel like my unique background makes me an asset to the classroom. I can bring in the woman’s perspective, the minority and Hispanic perspective, and my own personal perspective that has been shaped through my individual experiences. However, as soon as I step into the real world that lies beyond the walls of SPH, the harsh realities of double-standards, sexism, and racism slam into me like a train careening off its tracks. A train that, if anything, has been fueled by the rhetoric and intolerance spread by recent political events and elections.
There are serious inequalities that exist in almost every facet of professional life here in the United States. We are well into the twenty-first century, and yet I will still be paid less than my white, male counterpart because of the color of my skin, the existence of my breasts, and my petite stature. But I’m not here to whine. Yes, it sucks. It absolutely sucks. But I’m coming to realize that while it is important to acknowledge inequalities, it is even more important to fight harder against them.
I lived in this world before I came to Ann Arbor and my eyes were open. I’d experienced racism, sexism, and many other “isms,” but for some reason it never felt like it does now. Like a soaked, heavy blanket thrown over me and always weighing me down, suffocating me, making it harder to take one more step forward. Eighty-six percent of C-suite hospital executives are white while onIy seven percent are black and 3 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Honestly, this makes me angry. Because I know I need to work three times as hard as others to get to the same place. But you know what? I absolutely will. My grandparents came to this country in the 1960s and faced much more hate, intolerance, and obstacles than I ever will. And yet they worked four times as hard to be stronger, faster and, above all, kinder than the intolerance that faced them. Then my parents, pursuing careers in the bureaucracy of upper-level university administration, served as my first-hand mentors by working three times as hard to push past boundaries and become accomplished and much-loved departmental directors and associate deans – all the while raising my brothers and me to believe we could accomplish anything we desired through the same values instilled upon them by their parents: education, hard work, and kindness.
Since starting my graduate studies, I’ve become more aware of the disparities in minority and women representation in Public Health Administration. I am unaccustomed to being so acutely aware of my appearance and background. How I present myself suddenly becomes much more essential in everything I do and that is a hefty burden to constantly bear.
So here I am, shuffling toward the big black doors that mark the exit from this networking conference and an escape from my personal shame and perceived alienation. As I reach the foot of the exit, I pause and tightly shut my eyes. You deserve to be here, I tell myself. Life isn’t fair, but don’t you dare lie down and take it. You DESERVE to succeed. In a moment of weakness, I was only a few steps away from losing an opportunity because I chose to feel like less, to let them win – and it is a choice, one of many small choices made throughout each day. It is a choice to hide away and accept the status quo, and it is a choice to say enough, and instead pursue greatness and chase equality.
I stay. I stay for my grandparents, for my parents, for my future children. I stay for everyone that will one day be faced with the choice of walking out the doors or not. With one deep breath, I swivel on my heel and stride back to the cluster of suits in the corner. The glass ceiling exists, but we are pressing against it and gaining force. We will fight for what we deserve: equality, justice, and love. Yes, I will willingly and happily work twice as hard as my counterparts. Then, one day, the glass ceiling will shatter. Perhaps it will be my children or my children’s children that will live in a world in which they will only need to work as hard their peers of every size, color and gender to accomplish their dreams. Until then, however, I maneuver my way through the crowd to the man in the Navy suit, stretching out my hand confidently.
*note: names of organizations and people have been changed for this article