Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared her experiences on gender equality during a discussion at Georgetown University in 2017. One story she told to illustrate unconscious bias had to do with the symphony orchestra that played where she grew up. There had never been a woman in the orchestra. The music critics thought a violin sounded differently when it was played by a woman. This issue wasn’t specific to her hometown, either. It was the case in most symphony orchestras at one time or another across the United States.
Change came in the 1970s-1980s when orchestras started to hold “blind” auditions. Using a screen to conceal candidates during preliminary auditions increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, these auditions increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30 percent. The story resonated with me then as a female diversity and inclusion author, speaker and consultant LGBTQ community member. And it’s really been top of mind since I joined Televerde’s Women in Leadership panel at Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana this past September.
Empowering Women from the Inside Out
Televerde is a sales and marketing solutions provider that specializes in inside sales and demand generation. They’ve been in business since 1994, partnering with many brands you’ll recognize. Here’s where it gets interesting. Their business model provides incarcerated women at two U.S. prisons with a second chance. The women are hired, compensated and skilled in the basics of sales and marketing, and certified in technologies such as Marketo, Salesforce and Eloqua. This level of knowledge and on-the-job experience increases their chances of being hired as it often provides them with a clear advantage over others in the hiring process on their release. (It’s effective, too. The recidivism rate for Televerde women is less than 5.5 percent. The national average is 68 percent.)
I was twice asked to participate in a Women in Leadership panel for the incarcerated women who make up Televerde’s workforce (70 percent, to be exact). I had a conflict the first time but jumped at the chance to participate the second time. The event put me in front of 90 women currently serving prison sentences in the state of Indiana. The experience was life-changing. (You can view highlights from the panel here.)
Those of you who follow me know that I’ve spent my career advising Fortune 500 companies on how to build more inclusive workforces. Companies have done remarkable work to unleash the power of human potential in marginalized communities. But there’s a population we’ve left behind and who we continue to view through a lens of bias.
More Than “Inmate”
This was my first visit inside a prison. I didn’t fully know what to expect. I did some homework on Televerde and read many stories about their work with incarcerated women (there’s an excellent FOX News10 segment here). As with everything, it’s one thing to read about something, but quite another to experience it.
The women I met blew me away. Their talent and potential far exceeded the levels I had imagined. The women delight in learning. They are smart and savvy business professionals who are incredibly grateful for their second chance. They talk about their assigned campaigns as though they are true extensions of their client’s teams (they are). Their level of knowledge as it relates to technology would wow the likes of Elon Musk. It’s hard to fathom that most of these women earned their GED in prison just to get the chance to work for Televerde.
These women are daughters, mothers, sisters, wives and partners. They shared stories of the lives they left behind and how they are now motivated to ensure the time away from their families is well spent. What an incredible example of optimism!
They feel pride, many for the first time in their lives, to be accomplishing things that their families can be proud of. They have become role models in the unlikeliest place. For me, this was inspirational.
Many spoke about the financial independence they’re achieving. They are delighting in the fact they can support themselves and their children and save money while in prison. Gone are the feelings that they are financial burdens on their families. These aren’t women looking to take from the government. They are earning their way and they prefer it this way.
As I’m sharing my experience, I’m revealing blind spots that many of us probably unconsciously hold about people in prisons. On some level, it’s hard not to buy into the narrative that Hollywood and headlines have continued to put in front of us about incarcerated women and men. We’ve been led to believe that our prisons are reserved for the worst among us. But the truth is, we’re a country that over-criminalizes. Case in point: today, there are 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in law and policy (like mandatory minimum sentences, tough on drug stances, Three-Strikes Law, etc.) explain much of this increase.
Following my visit to Rockville, I can tell you this. When it comes to prison life, the stories we’re told do not reflect reality. The women I met and interacted with all own their mistakes. They are desperate for a chance to prove they are better than the decisions that led them to prison. They want to learn, grow and change to end the cycle of incarceration for themselves and their families. They are looking for opportunities to help them tap into their human potential. Televerde and their clients are giving all of this to them.
Behind the Curtain
Remember the RBG story I began with? If I put a curtain between you and every woman I met at Rockville and asked them to just talk, hearts and minds would change. You would see these women as they are today. You would come to find that you have more similarities than differences, both personally and professionally. More than that, you’d want to recruit and hire them to work for you. But right now, without a curtain to hide the prison uniforms and inmate numbers, I don’t think most would be enthusiastic to embrace talent from this community.
Keeping private employers from investing in this population are fear and a lack of understanding. But now, more than ever before, we need to bring this group into the diversity and inclusion discussion. Because here’s the thing: 91 percent Americans want criminal justice reform. It’s a huge burden on our economy, costing taxpayers $182 million annually. And the Government can’t solve this alone. This is why the Society for Human Resource Management introduced Getting Talent Back to Work, calling on companies to pledge to hire individuals with criminal backgrounds.
Change is never easy. But when we find the courage to proactively work towards inclusion for all, we evolve and grow. The outcome then is that individuals and organizations thrive. That is the trend by a mile.
My biggest takeaway from my visit to Rockville is this: The only real difference between the women I met and most of us is a bit of good luck. We’ve all likely made a poor choice at some point in our lives. It may or may not have come with consequences. For these women, the penalties were severe but they are serving their time in the best way they can. They deserve a second chance. It’s time for businesses to learn from Televerde and give them one. I commit to doing my part to help get you there.