by: Candice Stewart
The matter of ‘Supporting women in leadership’ is a standard part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion script for most — if not all — the DEI departments and consultants across fields of work. This is also true for the topic of ‘Supporting Black Women’ in some working environments. This blog post will highlight ways in which Black women can be supported in the workplace.
As a Black woman with leadership experience, I can easily say that I know very little about being supported in the workplace. If you think about it, this revelation should not come as a surprise to anyone. We live in a man’s world and if this was a game of ‘3 strikes and you’re out’, two of the three have been expended for Black women everywhere — one, because they are Black and two, because they are women.
This blog post will briefly show insight to my personal experience, information on the recent experience for Afro-Caribbean and African American women as well as some of the ways in which companies can genuinely support the Black women in leadership and perceived non-leadership roles within their organisation.
My experience as a Black Woman in Leadership
As an Afro-Jamaican, I have received less in salaries and benefits when compared to Black men and women or non-Black counterparts equally as qualified and in some cases less qualified. I have experienced the ill treatment when defending a point. I have been labelled as problematic and difficult because I asked questions as opposed to jumping into action without hesitation. I have also been discriminated against because of my natural hair. I have also been a witness to Black women being dissuaded from leadership and encouraged to take up the perceived less challenging roles. Essentially, the support claimed to be in existence has been found wanting.
The Afro-Caribbean Experience
From a statistical standpoint, this article about Women of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora in the Americas highlights wage gaps and the low representation in politics, one of those challenging leadership roles.
It says, “Despite the high level of participation of women in the formal sector, their earnings do not keep pace with men. In Barbados male earnings surpass those of females by between 14% and 27% of average female wages depending on the sector, and in Jamaica, it’s between 8% and 17% of average female wages.
Comparatively, “The State of Black Women in Corporate America” 2020 report highlights that “for every 100 men promoted to their first manager role, only 58 Black women receive the same advancement.”
The African American Experience
It is reported that 1 in 3 Black women feel they are less empowered and supported to overcome professional challenges than the general population.
An analysis conducted by USA Today indicated that in the workplace, “Black women feel underpaid, under-appreciated, under-supported, undervalued, and alone, especially in [the] corporate setting. Additionally, Black women develop the “quit and stay mentality.” Quit and stay is the phenomenon of employees becoming disengaged and less productive while waiting for other roles to become available. Quit and stay is an unfortunate but avoidable phenomenon in the workplace.
This, in comparison to quiet quitting where people do only what is required within the precise parameters. So, there’s no going above and beyond. It is reported however, that Black women lack the luxury of quiet quitting solely because of the strikes that lay against them.
“Any time a person of [colour] or a woman tries to establish healthy boundaries for themselves, they are much more likely to be seen as troublemakers. Never mind doing the bare minimum at work. Some research shows that women and minorities face harsher punishments than others for making the same mistakes. So, it is not just career growth and workplace relationships that might suffer from “quiet quitting” — being terminated might be a risk, too, if employers see scaling back as shirking your duties,” states a Washington Post article about women and people of colour quiet quitting.
The Continued Lack of Support for Black Women Leaders
Based on the presented insight to the issues faced by Black women, and the range of other information that exists, it is safe to say that without support and the drive for actual change, Black women will continue to be negatively impacted by the lack of support in the workplace.
This is an issue because Black women are not receiving the deserved promotions neither are their skills being tapped into. A ‘Black Women Thriving’ survey executed by the consulting firm, Every Level Leadership, revealed that 75% of Black women say their employer does not take full advantage of their skills. An additional 63% say that they do not see a path to advance their career with their current employer, and as a result, 71% indicated that they would quit for a new job in order to get a pay raise or promotion.
Many fail to acknowledge that the lack of inclusivity can negatively impact mental health which can in-turn impact work output.
The Black women thriving survey also speaks to this issue. It states that “respondents called attention to how non-inclusive workplaces impact their mental health. While most Black women say they feel valued for their contributions at work and they have the freedom to make their own decisions, 88% of the respondents experience burnout on the job sometimes, often or always due to the pressures of performing in non-supportive environments.”
The Required Support for Black Women Leaders
The answer is simple but the process may be more difficult as it requires culture change. Here is a list of some of what companies can do.
- Normalise allyship and allow Black women to be themselves
When you see something, say something transcends topics such as abuse. It is also applicable to your allyship in the workplace. Speak up when microaggressions rare their ugly heads, when salary gaps remain the norm or when unjust retaliatory treatment is meted out.
Giving Becky the leverage to walk into the workplace with hairstyles that are historically known to be Black but punishing Black women for wearing their natural hair is one of the biggest double standards. Having locs or an afro or twists does not make Black women less professional than Becky who showed up to work with braids.
2. Acknowledge that Black women deserve a space at the table
Bear in mind that Black women are often just as qualified and credentialed as everyone else in the room. They are sometimes more qualified. Do not be guided by the ‘Black women are inferior’ philosophy. We are your equals in more ways than you think.
Regardless of credentials, the mere fact that a Black woman in spaces of real leadership offers a platform for other Black women and even other minorities in the workplace. This sets the precedence for actual mentorship as opposed to policies that gather dust.
“Persistently interrogate your biases, beliefs, and unwillingness to speak up in rooms where you are not the minority. Do this by listening, practicing the intention to understand — not to respond — and showing that feedback was implemented by following through, advocating, and speaking up in places where Black women are not represented or heard.”
3. Be transparent about salary + benefit structures and fill the gaps
Why are salary gaps even allowed? If 3 people have the same level of qualifications, why are they not being paid equally? Why are they not in receipt of the deserved job benefits? The kicker here is that Black women can be more qualified and experienced than their counterparts but still end up with less in salary and benefits. Mind blowing, isn’t’ it? Why are factors such as race and gender politicised and therefore unjustly argued to be deserving of less?
Pay people what they are worth.
4. Be mindful of Black women’s mental health
“The reward for good work is more work” is an adage that triggers anxiety for me. As a Black woman, I have witnessed where my reward for good work was increased expectation to produce for the job. More expectations have been placed on me whereas no accountability measures were put in place for non-performing colleagues who are not Black.
That type of situation can take a toll on one’s mental health and can lead to burnout. Though this is coming from personal experience, I imagine that there are other Black women who share similar experiences.
There are thin lines between tapping into a Black woman’s skills and work ethic, celebrating them, stating how much you can count on them and then issuing additional work with no means of accountability anywhere else.
It is not lost on me that the issues raised are also faced by people of other genders, races and ethnicities. However, this is specific to Black women. If you can relate and you’re from a different demographic, it highlights that the lack of support is more than just a demographical issue — but a systemic one. Additionally, I am not oblivious to the fact that the highlighted issues are common for Black women in the workplace regardless of where they land in the organisational structure.
Progress and Perspective: Reflections on Women of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora in the Americas — Caribbean Dev Trends+, IDB Improving Lives
Nurturing Black Women Leaders — IBM Institute for Business Value, IBM
The State of Black Women in America — Lean In
Women and People of Color Can’t Afford to ‘Quiet Quit’ — Washington Post
Black Women Thriving — Every Level Leadership
Black Women in Leadership: Strategies for Progress — Entrepreneur