The Future of Work: Affirmative Action

UC Berkeley Extension
30 min readAug 22, 2023


Jill Finlayson: Welcome to the Future of Work podcast with UC Berkeley Extension and the EDGE in Tech initiative at the University of California, focused on expanding diversity and gender equity in tech. EDGE in Tech is part of CITRIS, the Center for IT Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute. UC Berkeley Extension is the continuing education arm of the University of California at Berkeley.

This month, we’re taking a look at the recent US Supreme Court decision that essentially struck down 4 and 1/2 decades of legal precedent that allowed higher education institutions to consider race as one of many factors in their admissions evaluations. While California has been grappling with this challenge since Prop 209 passed in 1996, now across the nation universities are seeking new ways to define college admissions that will help level an uneven playing field.

Beyond admissions, we have questions about the domino effect that this ruling will have not only on the makeup of the incoming university students but on the pipeline of college graduates entering the workforce and the ripple effects on DEI and hiring and the makeup of that workforce. To talk about this important topic, we turn to Dr. Monica Cox to help us unravel what this ruling means for our future of work. Monica is a disrupter, trailblazer, change agent, and leader who believes in living an authentic life, even if that makes people feel uncomfortable. She grew up an only child in rural southeast Alabama, where she was raised by her educator parents to persist in the face of personal and professional adversity.

As a coach, she guides clients in areas of career development, business strategy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. A distinguished professor and entrepreneur, Dr. Cox’s inquisitive nature contributes to her passion for educating others and sharing what she has learned via her own experiences. Let’s welcome Monica. Hello. Welcome.

Monica Cox: Hi. Thank you. Thanks, Jill. I’m excited to be here and have this discussion today. Thanks for having me.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, I’m so glad that you’re here. And to set the stage, I think it would be important to say a little bit — I think a lot of people know what affirmative action is. But how do you define affirmative action? And why did it come about in the first place?

Monica Cox: Yeah, well, to me, affirmative action is really the United States response to its history, particularly when it comes to race and to inequities from populations that have historically been oppressed in our country. I know, today, we’re talking about it from the perspective of higher education and students. But across the nation, affirmative action has been something to make sure that people who were not originally included in the US Constitution are now welcome as citizens or as people who are part of the US fabric.

Jill Finlayson: What’s an example of barriers that have persisted from that history or that legacy?

Monica Cox: We typically think of things like voting. But when you think about who is given seats at a table, particularly who is admitted to institutions, that’s something that has historically been a barrier. And so really assuming that people are competent who have only been able to enter institutions for maybe the past 50 years or so, I think that’s an example. Making sure that people are holistically evaluated for the contributions that they bring to an organization, that’s something that we include when we’re talking about affirmative action.

Jill Finlayson: So why do you think this decision on affirmative action should impact the future of work? I can see how it impacts the university. But connect the dots to me. How is this going to impact the future of work?

Monica Cox: Well, in every sector of our society, we need to make sure that we have diverse representation. And we think about issues from racial disparities in health care to university leaders and people who can actually make sure that our policies and our ways of working are inclusive. This is far reaching because our country has always been one that has promoted working hard and being a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. And if we are going to be the United States of America, we need to make sure that across every sector people have an opportunity to be seen and heard and bring their entire selves to an organization, not just a narrow representation of what people think excellence and representation should be.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, we do have that ethos of everybody can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But if you look at the data, mobility has been severely compromised. People of all races and backgrounds are having difficulty moving up in economic tiers. So if we have this ethos of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, why can’t everybody do that? Why is that not a level playing field?

Monica Cox: Yeah, we miss a lot of the qualitative nature of stories whenever we have those labels of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. For example, if you’re looking at many communities, particularly underrepresented communities, it’s not just about that Western capitalistic perspective of looking out for yourself and leaving other people behind or survival of the fittest. That’s just not the culture. And even if someone in a community advances, there are others in that same community who maybe didn’t have the same opportunity.

And this is a historical issue. It could be aunts, or grandparents, or cousins who were just in different spaces over time. And I just know — I can speak for myself and for a lot of other people I know.

Part of our values comes from making sure that we all reach the proverbial promise land together, that we all live the American dream. So it’s never just isolated.

This is a communal opportunity. It is something that is bigger than one person. And I feel like that’s the tension that you see with a lot of these decisions and how it impacts people who are successful but refuse to be successful by themselves.

Jill Finlayson: I love that, not being successful alone. But how do we bring everyone with us? And, honestly, I think our whole society would benefit from more of that outlook. If you were to take out a crystal ball and say five years from now, will we still be seeing impacts from affirmative action? What are you imagining?

Monica Cox: So I think that we’re going to see systemic issues. And people are going to push against traditional systems. I know of people who are just exhausted by the constant messaging that they are not enough because they are women or because they are Black, or they are Asian, or because they are gay, or they are whatever.

And just by human nature, people want to be safe. People want to be in places where they belong. And if enough people get fed up with this constant oppression, I predict that the changes are not going to be what people expect. But they may be revolutionary in their approach.

Jill Finlayson: Say more because I think this is a very exciting and rather uplifting approach. I kind of thought you were going to go five years from now, we’re going to still see people being held back. But you’re kind of saying the opposite.

Monica Cox: Uh-uh. No, no, no. I mean, so let me tell you. In 2020, we saw the fire that came after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And I don’t think that that stopped. I just think that organizations decided that they were going to move on.

But the books, the images, the things that people saw and heard are still there. And one of the issues I think with sometimes a capitalistic perspective is this focus on silence, this focus on moving on, this focus on productivity, this focus on let’s just brush the emotion aside or let’s just brush that thing aside so we can keep going to the next.

And kind of going off for a little bit, and I’ll come back. But it reminds me of the pandemic a little bit. The language always was let’s get back to normal, back to what we used to do without recognizing that there was a shift and I think a permanent shift in how people think about work, how people think about themselves, how people think about their communities and their value.

And it’s the same when we’re talking about everything that’s happening with affirmative action. People are wondering is this education as valuable as I thought it was? Can I find value in other ways? Can I define myself in a way where I am in control in where I don’t have to fight to prove that I belong? I think that mentality is what is going to form.

And people are going to start convening and, as I said, form systems where they are celebrated. And if it’s not the traditional system that says you don’t belong, fine. Include who you want, but I’m going to my place of value. I’ll create my place of value. And I think people are just bold enough to be empowered. And I think the pandemic did help us in that way because we survived.

I say this all the time. When you look at the stats, when you look at everything that we were up against, there is this fire that we have. But I think that leaders did not capitalize on that. And, instead, we’re using it to wage war against each other. But some people are going to turn that into something different.

Jill Finlayson: I love that we’re going to have new systems and that the people who value inclusion are going to be designing those new systems. If we have to reverse engineer this blueprint, kind of backing it out, where do we start today so we get to that vision that you just described?

Monica Cox: I read a lot of Black feminist literature, a lot of literature that really talks about like I said the systemic issues and the historical issues in our country. And I feel that so often we talk about dismantling. So I’m going to use the word dismantling, which can be extremely — that can cause a lot of fear in people because they’re like what does that mean?

Like are we like taking certain people out? Are we destroying things? And I think I want to use the term because dismantling can also be seen in a really good way because it’s a way of taking out the things that don’t serve us and replace them with practices and policies that actually bring us to a new space.
And I know we talked about the Surgeon General’s report where they were talking about workplace wellness and how it includes things such as connectiveness, and safety, and well-being, and really feeling included at work. And I think those are things that we can work on every day that help us to get to those systems.

So once again, it’s not the stereotypical tear it down, burn it up. It’s be kind, be sensitive, be aware, be inclusive. And bit by bit those things that seem so soft, particularly in engineering or STEM, are the very things that are quite powerful in transforming how we do work and how we bring humanity to work in a way that people are hungry for in these systems that are just so oppressive.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, it actually reminds me of an earlier guest we had, Barry O’Reilly, talked about unlearning, how it wasn’t just enough to learn new things. You had to unlearn certain habits and behaviors that weren’t serving you anymore, that weren’t helping you get to the world that you wanted to see.

So I appreciate the term dismantling because sometimes you have to take something down to rebuild it stronger and better. So that’s a great lens to bring to it. Along with that, you’ve talked about this phrase in a lot of your personal branding, which is to stop playing diversity. So tell me a little bit more. How did that come about? And what does it really mean?

Monica Cox: I was in a formal setting, an interview. And the associate dean at the time asked if I had other questions. And my question was do you play diversity? And, of course, he didn’t know what that was. And at the time, I think I’d only used that phrase a little bit. But the person said, of course, we don’t play diversity. Because, of course, even if you don’t know what it is, somebody is going to say like, oh, we don’t do that.

The context of it sounds as if we’re very serious about diversity. And, of course, it includes equity, inclusion, belonging, all that stuff. But I knew that I wanted to be in a place that accepted me for who I was. And I am very active on social media. I was blogging at the time. I was calling out a lot of systems that I felt were very performative. And I knew that if I entered a very traditional environment, there would be issues.

And there are some people who place their social media like on a private setting because they don’t want potential employers to see all the stuff that they’re doing. But I opened mine up. And I told people that I was not going to change. And if they didn’t want me, don’t hire me. Stop playing diversity is about performative diversity that may end up harming people because an organization has not done its due diligence or they really don’t have policies, practices, and ways of moving to protect people as changes like what we’re talking about today happen.

Jill Finlayson: Well, you mentioned George Floyd. And, of course, there was a reaction to George Floyd, and a lot of effort was made. Are we seeing that effort being held out or were some of these companies just playing?

Monica Cox: Well, data and many articles point to the fact that many companies were playing. I think I read an article a couple of years ago that talked about how all those promises were not fulfilled. I think there were millions of dollars that corporations and organizations said they were going to put into their diversity, equity, inclusion efforts, and they didn’t.

And at the time of this recording, there are also companies, higher ed, corporate, et cetera who are letting go of their diversity, equity, and inclusion officers left and right. Most recently, there was an article about the exit — I don’t know the full story, but the exit of the DEI leaders at Netflix, and Disney, and I think much of this happened within the same week.

So something is going on. There are stories that are happening, particularly after the Supreme Court ruling regarding race-based admissions even outside of higher education. So it’s an uncertain time for a lot of people who put their entire careers into this work and are now being laid off. What does this really mean?

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, it’s a really tough time. And I think what we need to do is address some of these very difficult questions head on. And one of them is around the reasons why people are saying we have to get rid of affirmative action is because it shouldn’t be based on the color of your skin or your gender. You should be chosen based on merit and based on qualifications.

So I think some of people’s biggest concerns about affirmative action is that qualified people quote, unquote, “will be turned away in favor of unqualified people.” What’s kind of true about that? What’s not true about that? And, Interestingly, I’d like to hear your take on what is the impact in the people of color community when it comes to the assumption that they were an affirmative action hire?

Monica Cox: So what I will say, people say that they want a GRE. If they say that they want certain things for someone to be admitted, then, OK, fine, lay that out because that’s what you believe. That’s what you’ve identified. The issue with that is that we have a lot of literature that talks about how to holistically evaluate people.

We have a lot of literature that points to what is needed to make sure that our future workforces represent everyone in society. And, unfortunately, like many organizations see measures that are not typical, and I put that in air quotes, as weak. So someone demonstrating that they are a leader in their community at an early age and having the ability to somehow rally people together and demonstrate that is important, someone who actually cares for their community, someone who can demonstrate that they can move through an entrepreneurial venture at the age of 18 or 19, these are things that are very strong.

But how do you measure that? And many places do not see value outside of the way they’ve always thought about value. And I think that’s the biggest issue. It comes back to when we’re talking about humanity. It’s not weakening any type of selection when you broaden the criteria by which you evaluate who should be included in your space. It actually makes sure that you have people of varying levels of strength who can really strengthen your team.

And I think that’s what the issue is. When we talk about the weakness, it’s certain people who say this is valuable and this is not valuable. They’re really being clear about it and a lot of the things that are not valuable aligned with underrepresented communities or marginalized communities and considered the opposite of that.
If someone were to say, well, we don’t really care about certain things that have traditionally been valued, would people be offended? And they probably would. And I just feel like everyone wants to see themselves. So that’s the good and the bad.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah. Let’s talk about some examples of that because a couple come to mind when you were talking. One was that when people hire, they often look at the brand name of the university or they look at the internship that you had and work that might be at retail or in some other capacity that’s not technically in the field that they’re applying to is not seen as valued. Yet it’s very real work experience.

And it’s customer service. And it has all of these very strong skills. So that’s one example that comes to mind where they only value a certain type of work experience. Do you have other examples where that would bring home the point?

Monica Cox: Yeah. I even think about myself and some ways that I’ve branched out as a non-traditional academic. I talk to you about social media. But what I’ve learned is the power of translating a message across populations that are not just my discipline. And it is a unique skill. It is something that leaders need to have.
Like you think about fundraising as an administrator or as a CEO, but you need to have the ability to translate your message in different ways. Like even my being on this podcast, some people would say this is not a peer-reviewed publication or this is not something that people in engineering education traditionally do. But I think having the ability to convey information in this way is very powerful. And we need to value that.

Jill Finlayson: I agree. And I think part of this still comes back to, though, they think qualified people will be turned away. The pie is only so big. We can’t make the pie bigger. I always argue let’s just make the pie bigger. But there is that sense when we think about universities that some people won’t get accepted to Harvard because a certain amount of seats were set aside for people who had barriers or disadvantages.

So then that means somebody who didn’t have barriers and disadvantages didn’t get that slot. And I believe it was Michelle Obama’s statement — she talked about the fact that we’re OK with certain types of affirmative action, legacy admits, sports advantages, people who make donations.
For some reason, those people are OK to give affirmative action to. But people who haven’t been offered AP courses in their high school are not offered that same kind of opportunity. So how do we address this concern that somebody is going to lose if somebody else wins?

Monica Cox: Gosh. You know what, I don’t know exactly what the solution to that is because I think that it’s a lot deeper than we know. It connects back to issues of power and just ultimately fear and misunderstanding. It’s also about where you put your value. And I think many people would say, yes, Harvard is a phenomenal school. But if you are just a really quality person, you’re going to succeed outside Harvard as well.

And I know it may sound like I’m talking out of both sides like, oh my gosh, go to Harvard. But then don’t go to Harvard. And I think it’s how we situate our value and the value of other people. Because I’m going to get halfway spiritual if I can for a moment. And my husband and I talk about this, about competition.

And from a spiritual perspective, I feel that you can’t compete with your anointing. And your anointing is your gifts. It is who you are. And if you know who you are. and if you flow in that space, then nothing is going to prevent you from being successful. And I feel like I’m talking about that from the perspective of people who are like we have to limit who gets stuff. We have to limit who is enrolled because they’re going to take spaces.

No, your gift is your gift. Why? Why are we threatened? So it’s that part that I kind of don’t understand. And there’s one other piece I want to present. Another perspective that someone told to me is that a lot of people always say like, OK, everyone wants to go to Harvard. Everyone wants to go to an Ivy League or to a certain space. But if those environments are hostile, those places still are not as great as they seem to be.

So there are people who would be admitted to those places and still choose not to go because of the mentality and the way that people will treat them just because they’re considered to be a diversity hire, or a diversity student, or whatever. And so I think it’s a holistic perspective, not just this is the great thing everybody wants.

No, people want to be at great places where they are valued and celebrated not tolerated. So there’s a lot to that.

Jill Finlayson: There is. And I think that’s something on the system side as well when we look at hiring. Should you even be looking at the brand name of that university because what you really want to know is does the person have the skills and competencies to do the job?

And you mentioned this, I guess, side effect, unintended consequence, of affirmative action, which is that whether you’re brought in for your qualifications or not, you might be perceived as somebody who benefited from affirmative action. Can you say more about how that feels, and how do we counteract that?

Monica Cox: Yeah. I think what’s in someone’s heart is in their heart. We can frame this within the context of affirmative action and say we’re talking about who gets in but who doesn’t get in. But there’s a lot of presumed incompetence before people are even viewed.

You have a certain sounding name, if you come from a certain neighborhood, then there are people who are already saying, oh, we’ve never hired anyone like that so certainly they don’t have the pedigree. They don’t have the background. They don’t have what it takes to be blah, blah, blah. And that’s because this person may be a first.

This person may be an only. And there are just these automatic biases that put people in the frame of a stereotype. Before they set foot on campus, before they have a class, before they speak, before they turn in their first work assignment, it’s like prove yourself. And I think we have to be really cautious because that’s what’s also happening now.

But there are people who are now going to be penalized who are already in the system because there’s a national push and ad and branding that says that a lot of people got in who didn’t deserve to be here. Like the target is on the backs of people who are thriving. And the water cooler conversations are about to happen, the after-hour meetings, the meetings on the golf course. Oh, does this person deserve to be here? Oh, they’re given special treatment.

Like something else is about to happen. I keep saying this. I just know it’s not just what we think is going to happen with admitting new people or our criteria for new people. I hope I’m wrong. But I think that we may have some internal wars in our organizations where people are going to start calling the stuff out. And other people are going to let some language slip that shouldn’t slip but is going to put leaders, HR, and people in some uncomfortable situations about how to move forward with who belongs and who doesn’t.

Jill Finlayson: I didn’t think about that effect of the people who are currently in the workplace still getting impacted by this affirmative action decision. And so how do we think about alternatives to level the playing field given that we don’t have affirmative action?

Monica Cox: I always say from a technical perspective, because this was an academic institution, we have to broaden our thinking about our fields. And I’m going to give you an example. This was a school of medicine that I worked with. And it was during the pandemic.

And there were so many ways to think about the application of their work to underserved populations, to marginalized populations, and to people who are just left out of conversations. And I really pushed them to think about engaging with scholars who could extend their research in ways that touched the entire US population. And I really also pushed them to say it’s not just about rankings anymore.

But it’s about places that are very comprehensive and are able to have impact beyond where they have traditionally had impact. So I’m not talking anything about race or particularly DEI. But I’m talking about impact. I’m talking about broadening access to people via very traditional research, but making sure that if something else like another pandemic comes up, we’re not lacking data about how something so big impacts everyone, or we have baseline information that will really keep us competitive, so to speak.

It’s about, once again, that systems perspective and thinking, who’s included and who’s left out? And when we want to bring someone into any space, we want them to help us bring a perspective that is beyond where we are now. And I think when you approach your organization and your team from that place of humility to say we have expertise in this space, but our focus is to push ourselves, I feel like that’s a different way to think.

Jill Finlayson: I’m curious. You say that we all had this experience. And we all had to learn and change from it. What do you think we could do then to take from that experience and apply in the workplace?

Monica Cox: Yeah, so I keep bringing back the word humanity. And there’s also a word, grace. It’s so funny because I just don’t think I was the same person five years ago I am now. And one thing I learned by having to care for my mom, who passed last year, and caring for an infant, who became a toddler and a preschooler during the pandemic, is this idea of grace.

You don’t know what people are going through at home. And I think we so often think if someone doesn’t show up or if someone presents themselves a certain way, that something is going on. But I think we need to give people grace and space, trusting that they will do what they need to get things done and to be a part of a team.
Now, I’m not talking about if someone’s a poor performer, don’t do anything. I’m just saying it’s leading from a place of humanity because I think if we don’t, we’re going to tax certain systems in our organizations. HR is going to be taxed because we’re going to have a lot of turnover. We’re going to have a lot of drama, a lot of complaints, a lot of mess that is just going to be this constant barrage of just trash.

I think that when we’re looking at our Title IX offices, our compliance offices, when it comes to certain claims, like discrimination claims, when it comes to a lot of things, we’re going to have a lot of wars because we have not had conversations. It’s going to be like, this person looks at me funny. This person did this. This person did that.

That could have been a conversation. That could have been a bold leader who just said, hey, this is our policy. This is what we’re doing. This is how we talk it out. This is how we move. I want to address it.

But I just see so much avoidance. And it’s going to take away from the productivity that everybody thinks we’re going to have because we’re now shifting it into emotional, very tense places that have not yet worked out how to bring people together with conflicting views and perspectives.

So I guess, Jill, what I’m saying is it sounds very soft. You know what I mean? I feel like as I’m hearing myself I’m like, oh, touchy feely, engineering just do this. But you know what? If people don’t start operating from this space, particularly as law, after law, after law comes down from the highest court in our land saying what women can do with their bodies, who can do what, who can marry whom, we’re going to have some other issues because that is traumatizing.

That’s another word. We have not talked about the trauma when your nation tells you that you’re not valuable, that history didn’t happen, that you can’t make certain choices, that you can’t love who you want to love. I mean, I could go on because every day, month, something, we’re seeing something beyond affirmative action.

This is one thing that I love that you’re talking about. But you could put like 10 other laws and decisions at the federal and the state level. And it continues to happen every day.

Jill Finlayson: It’s a lot. And it does have this cumulative effect. How do we create policies where the climate is protected?

Monica Cox: I think first of all, they have to listen, listen to what people are telling them. One of the biggest defense mechanisms I hear from organizations is no one’s ever said that before. When someone says this is happening, well, why are you the first person saying it?

And there’s always going to be a first person who says something. But I always say believe someone who says something the first time because they have a lot to risk by saying something. So at least investigate it. Hear them out. See what’s going on. And don’t just become so defensive because they said something that you didn’t like or something you never heard.

Quick example to what you were saying is when we look at policies, I sometimes tell people think of three people in your organization. And look at a policy. It could be a leave, for example. If you have people of varying identities and backgrounds, is that policy applied the same way for each of those people? And if not, why?
This could be for salary negotiations. It could be for anything. But if you notice that there’s a certain type of person who is constantly getting the benefit more so than someone else. And that also tells you that something is possibly inequitable. Are policies transparent? That’s another thing.

In your organization, someone should be able to do a search and figure out how certain decisions are made. And many people think that there are just big policies that are out there. I work in an institution, a university.

And so, of course, you have HR policies. You have faculty-level policies. But when you are in a unit, whether it’s a center or a department, you have opportunities to develop your own policies as well if things are not transparent. So really understanding the power that you have.

And one other thing I often tell people in my coaching and in my consulting is that it’s not enough to just have those policies. But what does accountability look like? How do you evaluate them? How do you assess them? How do you revise them?

And don’t be afraid to say this is not working for us. And we need to eliminate it. We need to revise it. We need to do something else.

And so it’s an entire policy process that many people don’t execute and don’t execute well. But it’s very simple in my opinion. But it’s about closing that loop.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, I think also tracking data becomes really important. We know that if men take paternity leave, it lessens the penalty for women who take maternity leave. We also know that if women and people of color are disproportionately taking advantage of the hybrid workplace or remote work — but if they then don’t get advanced at the same rate as those who do not take advantage of those policies, we have a problem.

So again, being able to look at the data and say, are there disproportionate harms? Or do certain people have advantage from certain policies? I think that’s going to be really important and to your point, transparent as well.

Monica Cox: Absolutely. And I think that there’s actually a consequence. And this is real talk. I always have my hashtag real talk when I say something about what I’ve learned — is that I tell people I was a department chair. I thought that I was kind of on this fast track. And when the pandemic came, I just happened to be a 40-something year old first time mom who had intense caregiving responsibilities for my own mother.

And I had to make a choice of whether I continued on this path, this professional path, that kind of ignored some of the caregiving responsibilities or the things that were very important to me or if I said, I’m going to have to pass on certain opportunities because in this moment, for however long I have left with my mom, I’m going to choose her.

I’m going to choose my family. And that was a moment for me because I now feel that I’ve come out of that. And I know that I cannot enter any new organization that does not align with who I am now, with the understanding that I have and the lack of regret that I have taking care of my responsibilities, even when an organization didn’t fully say that’s what I should do.

J Jill Finlayson: I think that’s an important point, what you as an individual can do. And how do you spot a DEI-friendly workplace? So what would you say to somebody who’s in a similar situation as you were in? How do they assess their own decision making and their own, how do they take care of themselves? But also, how do they spot that employer who will be understanding of the demands?

Monica Cox: Yeah, you know what? I’m using one of my other phrases. I talk about the dog and pony shows. And I think many organizations are brilliant when it comes to marketing and showing the face that they want to show. So it is important to dig.

And I’ll give you an example. For me as I as a Black woman, what I’ve learned over time is that there’s always a learning curve for me to be in any organization. I mean, it’s for me and how I engage. It’s like my tone, so to speak, everything, like who I choose to be authentically. We’re going to have a learning curve.

And I want to talk to other people who look like me to see what the organization is like for real. So I think it’s a red flag if you’re given a schedule from an organization and no one with the identities that you value are on there. Really push and start asking for things that are important to you.

For me, it might be work life balance now. And also it could be resources that are available for people to thrive when they have these non-traditional paths. And so really be direct. Don’t assume that they’re going to tell you everything. Know what you value. Know your boundaries. Know your non-negotiables. And enter that space in the interviews being real. And I think you can’t be afraid to walk away.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, well, thank you for bringing it back to the society level because I have concerns about the ripple effect of this affirmative action decision, the consequences that now, as you say, some companies are devaluing or eliminating their DEI and belonging programs and staff. I have concerns that this is going to affect not only the incoming class of the college. But who’s majoring in technology, who’s majoring in medicine.

And these are just two critical fields, where representation really matters. So how do we circle back to this issue of ensuring that everybody can participate in the medical field, in technology? Because AI is going to change the world. And if we don’t have a diverse group of people creating technology, we’re going to have blind spots. And we’re going to have problems that are going to disproportionately harm certain populations.

Monica Cox: I really believe in leadership. And I think that people who are in leadership now have got to do the work to broaden their perspectives. And I love structure.

But I also know that we’re at a point where we do need more diversity across these fields. And I think it comes back to being very innovative in how we are talking about access. It’s about in a way — dare I say it out loud on a podcast — rebelling a little bit, pushing, pushing. I say you have to push.

Leaders and effective leaders now can’t just take these decisions and say, oh, well, whatever, let me keep going. They have to have very proactive stances about the values that are important to them and the values that their organizations were created on. And they should not waver depending on a decision that comes out.
And like I said, that’s very controversial. But I just feel like this is where people have to dig in to who they are and to what they believe and what they’re willing to dare I say risk? Although, it shouldn’t be a risk to be inclusive.

Jill Finlayson: It shouldn’t. It really shouldn’t. Well, there was an interesting footnote on the affirmative action decision that the military kind of put the foot forward and said, we need to be able to have leadership representation in the military that reflects the soldiers, that reflect the people in the military. Can you describe this footnote a little bit more and explain, why did they get that exemption?

Monica Cox: I do have someone who works with me in my business who is active service. And we talked about this as well. And the footnotes of Chief Justice Roberts to the statement saying that, yes, race-based admissions will no longer be accepted across the country universities, with the exception of these military institutes. And when you think about it, I think Judge Brown Jackson Ketanji was talking about what about chemistry? I think that she did mention that.
So similar to you, you saw that there was this dissent. And I think the person was saying — and I had a conversation. And we’re like, national security. She talked about how if many of the young cadets don’t have people who look like them, they will leave the military. And there’s already low recruitment in the military.
The pay is not great. And I think it’s just a response to say, yeah, we care about the US. And we want to be safe as a country. But that’s a completely different perspective. Someone can die for their country. And we can be included. But when it comes to like, oh, being chief resident at a hospital, maybe not. University president, you’re on that path. Maybe not.

Principal, K-12 principal, leadership programs, nope. Really? Nope, can’t do that. So there’s a lot to unpack with what we value and the exceptions that we make based upon our priorities in this nation. And I feel like that comes back to what I said about the dissonance. When people look at it, it’s like, I can fight. But I can’t lead in terms of my medical profession, or the legal profession, or other things when they are all things created equal that are holding me back from entering this space.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, I was very surprised at that footnote and on one hand appreciative that there was recognition that it was important, but disappointment that it wasn’t applied across all these other very critical fields.

Monica Cox: I think we have an opportunity to get it right. We have an opportunity to unite and to heal. But decisions like this only divide us more. And that’s my concern. Where are the visionaries? Where are the leaders? Where are the people who say it’s time for us to stop being so divided and to start uniting, even if it brings out some ugly thing?

Jill Finlayson: Well, circling back to your inspiring remarks at the beginning, there are people who see the opportunity. There are the people who want to bring a more inclusive future to us. So any final words in light of the affirmative action decision about how people can thrive in the workforce today, how they can create workplaces that we all want to be part of?

Monica Cox: Yeah, I know I’m a realist. And I’m going to say this because last week, I wrote a post on LinkedIn. And it has over three million impressions as of now. And it comes back to kind of being transactional at work. It comes back to really being able to separate your identity from your work, separating your identity from spaces that don’t value you.

And it’s not that you shouldn’t be a good employee or a good student. But always retain your value. Always know who you are. And don’t expect your flowers to come from places that may not be able to see your value in the moment.

I think that’s how you stay healthy. Mentally, that’s how you’re realistic. That’s how no matter what happens you can say, I have the skills. I have the ability. I have everything I need to be successful, regardless of what other people think of me.

And I think it comes back to something I mentioned earlier in our one-on-one conversation, where I said, I just know that I have been taught this by my ancestors and by people who have raised me. No matter what, I’m valuable. I’m here. I’m a citizen. And I’m a woman. And my body is worth something. I deserve to have a voice.

And I just feel like that’s what I would want to leave with people. If you have to say your own affirmations, if you have to write out your own mantra, if what you have to do to look in that mirror every day and say no matter what happens, I’m still here. I’m precious. And I deserve to be heard, and to move, and to live my best life. I mean, that’s what you have to do.

And I think that’s what keeps you going in the midst of the turmoil, the drama, the mess, the politics. And it just works for me. I know what the end is going to be. I know the destination.

Jill Finlayson: I like your focus on an asset-based mindset as opposed to a deficit-based mindset knowing that you have value. Your perspective matters. Your lived experience matters. And in fact, that’s an asset. That’s something that you have that you bring to the table that no one else brings.
And so I really thank you, Monica, for your remarks and your insights today.

Monica Cox: Thank you. And you know what? Just adding to what you just said, if someone doesn’t want me at their table, somebody else at another table will. And if they don’t want me at their table, I can build my own table. I have the skills. I have YouTube. I can figure it out.

Jill Finlayson: Go to your own table. Build your own table. And know that your table is going to be better than the table that didn’t take you because they’re not going to be as profitable, or as inclusive, or as successful.

Monica Cox: Yes, and that’s the new system, Jill. That’s the one I’m talking about.

Jill Finlayson: And with that, I hope that everyone enjoyed this latest in the long series of podcasts that we’re sending your way every month. Please share with family, and friends, and colleagues who may be interested in taking this future of work journey with us. And make sure to check out to find a variety of courses to help you thrive in this new working landscape.

And to see what’s coming up next at Edge in Tech, go ahead and visit Thanks so much for listening. And I’ll be back next month to talk about collaborative intelligence and its impact on innovation in the workplace. Until next time.



UC Berkeley Extension

UC Berkeley Extension is the continuing education branch of the University of California, Berkeley. We empower learners to meet educational and career goals.