Challenging stereotypes at work

I was born into a very conservative South Indian Brahmin family. My mother was the first girl in her extended family to be allowed to go to university, and I was the first girl to leave home for university without being married.

As I trace my family's lineage for more than 15 generations, I can't help but think about the girls and young women before me who never had the opportunity to go to high school, let alone college. Girls who, from a young age, were raised to be wives and mothers, who were taught to subsume their own dreams and ambitions and defer to the wishes of others.

Subha V. Barry,  vice president and general manager, Working Mother Media
Source: Working Mother Media
Subha V. Barry, vice president and general manager, Working Mother Media

My mother – strong, authentic, and unwaveringly true to herself – is my role model for success as a multicultural woman. With her support, I came to the U.S. to earn my MBA. I'd never been to the U.S. My English was heavily accented. Upon earning my degrees in accounting, I embarked on a career in financial services – a white male-dominated industry if ever there was one.

As a woman in financial services, there were a handful of role models. As a multicultural woman, though, I felt very much on my own.

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Today, decades later, many multicultural women find themselves on this same lonely island. While women, as a group, have made steady (albeit slow) inroads, multicultural women have been hindered by the challenges and complexities of both race and gender.

Let's take a look at the gap. The typical white woman with a bachelor's degree made 76 percent of what a similarly educated white man earned in 2014, according to Census Bureau data. By comparison, African-American and Hispanic women with a bachelor's degree made 68 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of the salary of a similarly educated white man. Asian-American women do better, earning 81 percent of a white man's salary at that education level.

Only 39 percent of multicultural women (compared with 51 percent of white women) believe their talent is the first thing noticed by colleagues when they walk into a room, according to Multicultural Women at Work, a recent survey of college-educated women by the Working Mother Research Institute (WMRI), sponsored by Deloitte. Just 40 percent of white women feel there's a race-based disparity in ability to climb the career ladder, but 53 percent of Asians, 58 percent of Hispanics and 73 percent of blacks say they feel that disparity at work.

Yvette Gilmore, now a vice president at a secondary mortgage company, once worked for a manager who had never hired a black person before. He kept remarking how articulate she was.Yvette had to pull him aside and say, "You know, you've got to stop that." The executive was surprised that she disliked the comment. She said, "I want you to think back really hard about the last time you told a white person how great it was that he or she was articulate." Being a woman of color means managing other people's discomfort with you race and gently educating them.

The survey found that multicultural women who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are more satisfied with their current jobs (91 percent versus 36 percent who don't feel they can be their authentic selves at work. Best-practice employers are taking steps to smooth the way, through professional development, training, mentoring, and leadership programs.

Carla Vernon, a vice president of marketing at a consumer-products company was on a call with an advertising agency that was setting up a commercial for two white scientists to make a breakfast cereal as chocolate-y as possible. When Carla suggested swapping out one character for a person of color, the response was that they needed it to be a quick read that this was a scientist. Carla said to them, "I'm African American and Hispanic, and my mother is a scientist, so I think we have every reason to cast a non-Caucasian as the scientist."

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Challenging stereotypes isn't easy. But the more practice we get, the better we will get at creating a workplace that is as diverse as it is comfortable for everyone.

Diverse perspectives are assets to employers. Successful companies realize that their increasingly diverse customers have unique needs. As multicultural women, we bring an added dimension of perspective and insight that is unique to our culture, the challenges we have overcome, and the paths we have taken.

Having gone down this path myself, I can offer these tips to women of color trying to advance their careers in today's marketplace.

Be authentic: Authenticity comes with knowing who we are and, more important, having clarity about what we want. Women shouldn't change the way they dress, shorten their names (for example, Subha becoming Sue) or fear to speak openly about their cultures and traditions.

Be self-aware: Women of color have unique skills and strengths. It's important to know and acknowledge where the gaps are, and to understand what is getting in the way of success. Mentors are ideal to provide this insight.

Trust is very important: Developing a relationship of trust with co-workers and superiors is the best way to not only create a positive self-image but to advance a career.

Learn to showcase strengths: While it's uncomfortable for many women, an aversion to self-promotion is a leading barrier to advancement. Nurture self-confidence and presence.

Ask for that promotion, raise or assignment: Too often, women of color are afraid to speak up and get what they deserve. I recommend making a case and going for it. It's also important to enlist others—like sponsors or mentors—for their support.

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A wise person once told me – Be yourself: everyone else is taken. That's the real power of authenticity.

Commentary by Subha V. Barry, vice president and general manager, Working Mother Media. Follow her on Twitter at @SubhaBarry.