By Mia Ellis, Inclusion and Diversity Lead, AEO
“Usually, when people talk about the strength of black women, they ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression. That endurance is not to be confused with transformation.” –bell hooks
Why are black women's workplace experiences often negative and the fruits of their labor much less than their peers?
A common explanation is that despite being highly educated, black women are more likely than other groups to work in low paying occupations such as the service industry, social services, healthcare and education. Studies show that even when they do work in higher-paying fields, they earn less than their peers.
In addition to disparities in pay for black women, they also frequently face hostile work environments and discriminatory practices for being outspoken or assertive. Black women have historically been portrayed in the media negatively – as angry and overly aggressive. This stigma has subjected black women to many assumptions that translate negatively in the workplace; they are not hard workers, they need to be pushed to perform well, they should be satisfied with any job rather than deserving of the best job. As a result, black
women often face unfair expectations and bias, often finding themselves confronting flawed narratives about their work ethic, potential and value. This can lead to faulty decisions about career and salary potential.
To best support black women in the workplace, leaders and mentors must understand the differences and challenges they face. Instead of forcing them to fit into existing corporate culture, they should instead allow them to add to it.
Here are some key factors to address and keep in mind.
1. Gender Diversity
When female workplace issues are discussed, the focus is primarily on white women's experiences. Companies often believe that they have taken significant steps to respond to women’s challenges in the workplace. However, there is little to no conversation about specific efforts to address how biases play out
for women of different races and ethnicities. This leads to a misleading and incomplete picture of the disparities between the earnings, advancement opportunities, and unemployment rates of black women and other female minority groups.
2. Psychological Safety
Black women often feel they need to hide their true selves at work. For leaders to encourage them to let their guards down and become truly engaged, they need to build trust. Black women want to be accepted and valued for who they are. They should be comfortable enough to question specific treatment,
microaggressions and stereotypes without fear of retaliation. Leaders need to praise their achievements, become a champion for their work and defend them when issues arise, including the correction of preconceived notions their peers may have toward them.
Due to the unique experiences that black women face, traditional corporate mentoring programs rarely benefit them. In these programs, they are typically mentored by executive leaders who have entirely different identities and backgrounds. These leaders are experienced in sharing insight with people who share similar backgrounds. However, they rarely take the time to truly understand the unique challenges and barriers that black women experience in the workplace and in their personal lives. Due to the lack of black women in leadership positions, reciprocal mentoring should be promoted as it allows for mentors to share their industry knowledge, and it empowers black women to have their mentors learn from them about their personal life experiences.
Leaders within organizations must intentionally put as much emphasis on racial diversity as they do on gender. They should ensure that women of all ethnicities are included in strategies around succession planning, promotions, and selecting members of the board. As with mentoring, they will have to shift from a “one size fits all approach” and realize that black women have different needs. Interventions that help white women succeed in a corporate setting may be counter-productive for black women and if meaningful change is to happen, this must be kept in mind.
Mia is a mentor in the 3 Cups of Coffee mentoring program. If you are interested in becoming a mentor, please contact Taneshya Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are actively recruiting diverse mentors.