Women’s History Month: Belonging at the Table

6 Min Read
Female teacher and students in the classroom

Image Source: Getty

I arrived at the meeting room early. The room was empty except for pastries, a coffee bar, and water. I was the first one there.

This was many years ago, roughly two decades into my EdTech career, and I had just been hired into a senior leadership role at a new company. This was my very first meeting, and I had a lot running through my mind, but first and foremost among all my thoughts was this: I was ready to get to work.

You know that feeling, right? It’s electric! It’s what I imagine it might be like for an astronaut in the moments before launch. For me, there’s excitement in the feeling, but also determination, passion, and anticipation of all the ways I’ll be able to solve problems, create, advocate, empower, and help build a better world, starting with this company in this conference room. As I sat there, in that moment I was feeling proud to have this specific opportunity, and grateful to everyone who helped me along the way and everyone before me who worked, as I do now, to increase equity in the world.

Because of the work of so many others before me, a seat at the table that would not have been available to an African American woman just a few years earlier was now fully available to me.

Or so I thought.

This story I’m telling is not just my own. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, particularly as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March. And, as the official Women’s History Month site affirms, it’s a time to “celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields.” I’m hoping the story I’m telling will ultimately land with you as one of celebration, as it has become a story, to me, about how we draw strength from others, tap into our collective power, and launch into the work together to ensure a better future for all.

At HMH, the Women’s History Month celebration has been centered with depth and true connection in the Women in Technology (WIT) community, one of HMH’s nine Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Our ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups based on shared interests, characteristics, or backgrounds (such as gender, race, ethnicity, veteran status, and more lived experiences). The groups help create deeper connections at HMH, where members can thrive, feel a sense of belonging and respect, and have agency.

As I reflect on the strength and fortitude of our ERGs, and WIT in particular, I am also reminded of a woman who embodies and symbolizes those same attributes—Dr. Mae Jemison. I’ve been thinking about and appreciating her outstanding accomplishments, especially as I remember that electric feeling of being ready to get to work in that boardroom many years ago. Mae Jemison—doctor, engineer, and astronaut—is celebrated in HMH’s Into Science and Into Reading programs for becoming the first African American woman in space in 1992, and for drawing on her passion for science and her determination to press onward through barriers to her growth and success. Her passion and determination came together early on for her, when she was a child witnessing the Apollo missions into space in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Everybody was thrilled about space,” Jemison remembered, “but I remember being really really irritated that there were no women astronauts.”

Image Source: NASA

At that meeting many years ago, my first in a new leadership role, other people eventually started filtering into the room. One of them approached me as I sat at the conference room table. He was another senior leader, with a cheerful expression on his face. I was expecting that he’d introduce himself, and that I’d have the chance to do the same.

Here’s what he said to me:

“I think we’re good on the coffee and room set up.”

I was trying to figure out why he was telling me this. His cheerful expression tightened just a little.

“We’re all set [for this meeting],” he repeated. “You can go.”

As you might imagine, I was overwhelmed with many thoughts, from feeling embarrassed to feeling confused and unsure—was he right? Do I not belong at this table?

Ultimately, after hearing and being told that I could go, suffice it to say I did not go. I stayed. If you ever get told that you don’t belong at the table, don’t listen. You belong.

I am extremely proud of the message of belonging at the core of all the employee-led ERGs at HMH, and this month I’m particularly proud of the Women in Technology ERG. In 2018, WIT started a whole new story at HMH by becoming the very first ERG to form, with a mission to elevate and support women and girls, and to provide a safe space for conversation and comradery. With the inception of ERGs, HMH ushered in a new level of people-first focus. Today, going on five years since WIT paved the way, over 35% of HMH employees have membership in one or more of the nine ERGs being led by employees, for employees.

I believe Dr. Jemison would also recognize that the support and encouragement that exists in the HMH ERGs help ERG members find and channel that electric feeling of being able to do their best work. Dr. Jemison once said, “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it and make it the life you want to live.”

Our Employee Resource Groups are all those things and more. They are a place you can go if you feel or you’ve just been told you do not belong, and they are a place you can go to feel and hear that you do belong!

The WIT ERG is focused not only on fostering support for its members but also, as stated in WIT’s mission statement, on “[working] together internally and externally to ignite girls and women to success and to address pertinent women’s related issues. We are focused on expanding our reach, providing resources, and facilitating connection among members and the HMH community—within or outside of technology positions.” They are not only spreading the message that girls and women belong at the table, but they are affirming that they are needed at the table.

I’m feeling it again, that sense that there’s work to do, and it’s a beautiful feeling, an electric feeling, like the moment before liftoff. I hope you’re feeling it too, and that you’ll join me in celebration of Women’s History Month and in the excitement I feel about the more equitable and inclusive future that we can build together.


Explore 8 Women's History Month Activities for Elementary Students to celebrate many influential women, including Dr. Mae Jemison.

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