Our Workplaces Are Failing Women of Color: And What We Can Do About it So All Our Employees Can Thrive

Business people at conference, coffee break.

Over the past several years, I have worked with and coached hundreds of women leaders — primarily women of color — and I have learned a lot about what is going on in many of our workplaces. Given the array of industries, sectors, functions and geographies my clients have come from, I am seeing some trends. Granted, these are not based on a quantitative data or survey results, however, I have seen enough to capture some common themes and observations that I want to share. And, since women of color are often an “double minority” in their workplaces, their experiences can be a proxy for what many people who feel like an “other” at work experience.

  • More companies than you think have systemic oppressive practices. From intentionally keeping certain groups out of the executive band to setting up people for failure to prevent them from being promoted to giving people in a majority group with less experience more money than someone in an underrepresented group, the list goes on…Women of color often have to walk a fine line at work which brings on a lot of stress and anxiety (Catalyst calls it an Emotional Tax). For black and Latina women, for instance, if they speak up too much they are seen as “aggressive,” the “B” word or “too emotional,” but if they don’t speak out enough, they feel like they don’t have visibility and people don’t know who they are.
  • Many women of color feel like white women think they understand their challenges because they can relate to them as women. However, ethnicity is a significant and underestimated component that women of color feel many white women — and especially those in positions of power — often dismiss and don’t try to understand.Many companies are well-meaning and are saying that they support equal pay, a diverse workforce, and an inclusive work environment where everyone will feel comfortable to “bring their whole selves to work.” However, many employees feel like their companies are rarely taking action to make those things a reality.
  • Black women are leaving corporate America in droves and opting for entrepreneurship. This has significant implications in regards to future talent management, culture and serving customers, to name a few.

So what can be done?

  • We need to elevate the level of consciousness in our workplaces. If we were better, more present and conscious human beings we would have better workplaces. Period.
  • Organizations should truly look at the data to see what they may be doing (even if unintentionally) to prevent underrepresented groups from advancing and thriving — including receiving equal pay. I understand this is scary because you may not like what you find, but the organization will be better for it if you make the right adjustments.
  • Ask your employees how comfortable they feel at work. Listen. Dig into the data. Then take action. At a conference I recently attended, one Diversity & Inclusion leader shared how her company sent out a culture survey to their workforce and, though the data seemed to show that many people felt comfortable being themselves at work, when they looked at the data by ethnicity or by department, it showed a very different story.
  • Make it mandatory for all employees to go through unconscious bias and racial consciousness training. Make sure that training is current and from a reputable source. Don’t think that is necessary? Well, know that we ALL have biases. Even black people. Even gay people. Even Muslim people. And given we all have biases, people with biases are leading organizations. If enough of us have the same biases, we may be unintentionally creating systems that keep certain people from advancing and/or feeling valued. Understand our biases and how they impact our practices is a good thing for everyone.
  • If you work for a global organization, make sure you address the cultural nuances from each region. For instance, I have heard from many organizations based outside of the US that their global HQs do not understand some of the unique challenges that certain groups (ex: African Americans) face and how that impacts dynamics at work.
    Make culture and inclusion something that executive leadership owns, not just one role (i.e., D&I).
    Model your employees, boards and executive teams after the demographics of your customer base. If you have a significant amount of customers who are from a certain ethnic group, yet you don’t have any people of that ethnic group in positions of leadership, there is a problem.
  • Don’t use “there isn’t enough <Black, Latina, Asian, female, etc> talent out there” excuse. That is doubtful to be true. There are numerous professional organizations where you can find talent. Do your work to find them and make sure your environment, management teams and culture are all conducive to them staying.

I understand these topics are tough and heavy. I get that. None of this is easy. But I believe when we have good intentions, take care of our people, and are leading consciously, not only will you have employees who will do anything for you (and stay!), your businesses will be better — and more profitable — as a result.

Women of color: can you relate to this?

All who are reading: what else do you think can be done to improve our workplaces for all?

  About Author

A champion for women in leadership, Kailei Carr is the Founder and CEO of The Asbury Group (an organization specializing in leadership programs, coaching and “inside out” experiences for women leaders across the globe). Kailei is also the host of the Beyond the Business Suit podcast and a leadership retreat for women of color called the Beyond the Business Suit Retreat.

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