Women’s History Month: Interview with Ebele Kemery EE’07
POSTED ON: March 28, 2021
March is Women's History Month. To honor the occasion, we interviewed Ebele Kemery EE’07 who has had a very successful career as an engineer, trader, technologist, and is the current head of JP Morgan’s Global Technology, Diversity and Inclusion division. We wanted to get Ebele's thoughts about what the past year has meant for women, what we still need to overcome, and what comes next.
To celebrate the "history" part of Women's History Month—is there a woman from history that you find especially inspiring?
That is interesting. I have been asked this question a couple of times and my choice is a woman who is not particularly “in history”, but rather alive and in her prime - Serena Williams. She has inspired me over the last few months and years. Recently she had the opportunity to match Margaret Court’s 24 grand slams singles titles but fell short. Although she has made it to the semifinals and finals maybe six or seven times, she never grasped the title. I am inspired by her resilience and her strength. She is so human, you can see her emotion when she does not get to win. She reacts just like all of us, getting upset. However I probably do not have the power that she has to break the racquet! She had gone through a C-section and lost a lot of blood from what I understand, an ankle injury, and yet bounced right back. I think that there are parallels with women in the workforce, and in corporate America where we are trying to show that we can have it all: have a career, a successful career, a family, a loving husband, and you can be top of your game! She is phenomenal to watch live on the TV and I think she has spawned a whole new breed of tennis players. I feel really inspired by how she just keeps on going.
According to Forbes Magazine, American women lost more than 5 million jobs in 2020. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women, especially those of color. How has COVID-19 set us back, and will we recover?
COVID-19 has really put women in a place where we have to choose between our family and our jobs, and, most of the time, we will choose family. Depending on what industry, I think that we have erased a decade or a couple decades of progress that we had made with women representation. And when I say representation, that is seeing women in the workplace across all roles…seeing them in management, across all ranks, or across all types of roles, whether technical or non-technical. It is unfortunate that COVID-19 has broken us into these haves and have-nots, where there are some roles or jobs that have done well. The tech sector is an example—where many of us in tech can keep doing our jobs or are even in demand. The tech market is hot right now—not so those in hospitality who have suffered, and a great number of women are found in the hospitality sector. So the disparity that you are seeing in what could even be called a “K-Shape” recovery, is where it is a tight tech market, but the average tech company has about 20% female.
Meanwhile, when you look at the hospitality industry, you can get to the 50's or even the 60's and 70's depending on which subgroup. As a diversity and inclusion practitioner, it is hard to move the needle in this space. In the past, the narrative was that we did not have enough women with the right skill sets. That is less common these days. Now we are focused on making sure that there is a culture where women feel supported and can thrive. Post COVID-19 will be a very different type of environment. Let us go back to the haves as opposed to the have-nots. Both have been home and have gotten to spend more time with family. Very few women, going forward, will want to give that up and why should they? We have shown that we can still be as efficient and even more efficient and not have to fully sacrifice family time. I am hopeful that it might not have set us back so severely in terms of the second question, can we recover? I think that companies that are able to recognize that there's value in giving people work-life integration, can ramp back up in representation of women.
For allies, how can they better support women through these changing times? What is the impact that allyship can have on women’s advancement?
Allyship is huge. First thing, for any ally, whether it’s for women or minorities, is to be in the know. Educate yourself—there is no way to be educated if you are not surrounded and immersed, or at least in proximity, to women themselves. There are a lot of assumptions, poor assumptions, that I have heard from aspiring allies, where for instance they think the reason why we do not have enough women in top ranks is because of work-life balance. That is just not true! Women have the same exact issues surveyed time and time again as men do, career progression and pay. There are definitely fringe cases of women taking time off or slowing down during certain periods in life, but once they lean back in, it is not about work-life balance, it is about career progression and pay. If you are an ally still saying things like that or leaning into flexibility as a number one issue, then it is time to educate yourself.
The number one thing that I would say in allyship, and how to support women, is to stay educated. I would also say understand that times are changing in a sense that what might have been the women's issue, you know, ten years ago, is likely not the same issue now as understanding the different generations. So, when we do a lot of surveys in organizations and engage our employees, we also want to break down the baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Z, and kind of figure out, and understand the issues at different points in their careers. Also, on allyship, depending on where you are in your career, sponsorship and mentorship is huge. I cannot emphasize that enough. If you are an ally who is in a senior position, just being able to use your voice to uplift a woman, a woman that you know is a high performer, giving her visibility, and using your own platform to let that person shine can really go a long way.
In 2020, we witnessed some exciting advancements for women of color in the news. In November 2020, Kamala Harris became the first woman vice-president-elect of the United States, shattering barriers that have kept men entrenched at the highest levels of American politics for many years. New Zealand appointed Nanaia Mahuta, as the first indigenous woman appointed as Foreign Minister of New Zealand. In December 2020, TIME magazine selected fifteen-year-old scientist and inventor, Gitanjali Rao, as their first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’ to celebrate girl power and women in science. What does this representation mean to you as a woman of color?
I think this means to me the same thing that it means to a lot of women, period. It is that we can finally be whomever we want to be, be recognized for our accomplishments, and hold seats of great value and influence. I am pregnant with a little girl and it feels good. There is a lot of work to be done and I feel encouraged that my daughter will be in a world where there will not be any first woman this, first women of color that, it will just be common practice and I feel really encouraged that we are marching towards that direction.
Where do you want to see us this time next year?
I want us to move beyond racial aggression. Right now, we are having a lot of conversations around Asian violence and aggression. Last year, it was black violence. You could argue that there is white on white violence from the shootings we are seeing. It is unfortunate that we want to celebrate re-opening the country, but is this what reopening the country feels like? I would love that in a year from now, this is not part of our vocabulary, it is not part of the experience that we are living every day and instead we are feeling and talking about something else and not always grieving, supporting, holding, and rallying around people because of tragedy that just keeps happening. It will be nice when many or all of us can come back to work and give a 100%, and not have to carry around the emotional baggage from some of the things that are happening in our society.