The Hard Truth
The Realities for Women of Color in the Workplace
The struggle is real. As a black woman, a business owner and an executive, I take great pains to provide relevant, research-based content to my readers and to clients.
Given who I am – a black, Barbadian, immigrant woman – largely socialized in the United States of America, I have a story to tell. I am the product of mostly large-corporate work culture and at the same time, a grass-roots, community-minded leader with a commitment to poverty alleviation, economic empowerment and education. I’m also a wife, mother, sister, friend, mentee, mentor, author and so much more.
Throughout my corporate and professional journey, it was the best of times and, it was the worst of times. I often was “the only one” and many times experienced the isolation, “otherness” and challenges of those who bear the burden of being different. Just to be clear, I am very proud of who I am. I’m grateful that as a child my mother taught me to not allow other people or circumstances to define me. I knew in my heart that most of the microaggressions, racism, and discrimination were a result of ignorance, insensitivity, and downright cluelessness. Nevertheless, the impact was the same – hurt, exclusion, frustration and for many years, a “social wall” rather than authenticity. While there were many challenges, there were also many opportunities to influence change. It was the latter that propelled me to keep moving, push for change and to seek allies, mentors and sponsors.
Like many women of color, I walked the tightrope knowing that my very presence, just showing up, elicited judgments and biases. It’s human nature and truth be told, we all have biases.
So many conversations about women’s advancement have focused on white women to the exclusion of women of color. To be fair, Catalyst was one of the leading organizations to research the experiences of women of color. The intent here is not to point fingers or to chastise any particular workplace. But it is high time that the circle of inclusion and discussions about gender diversity take a hard look at the data and experiences for women of color.
I’m delighted to see new research from The Network of Executive Women’s (NEW) “Advancing All Women” How Women of Color Experience the Workplace.”  Research such as this is essential for innovative organizations that value diversity and inclusion. Recruiting and hiring of women of color is not enough – companies must implement stronger retention and development strategies if African-American, Hispanic and Asian women are going to stay with them and generate the corporate gains that have been proven to accompany diverse leadership, says the NEW report.
The report follows up on NEW’s “The Female Leadership Crisis,” which revealed a significant disparity between the way women and men experience the workplace. “Advancing All Women’s” insight into the ways that white women and women of color differ in their workplace experiences is vital to decision makers at the highest levels, because studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership ranks realize better results. “Delivering through diversity,” a January 2018 report by McKinsey & Co., revealed that organizations with higher executive team ethnic, cultural and gender diversity were more likely to reach above-average profitability than companies with lower levels of diversity. 
The NEW research makes it clear that to reach their diversity and inclusion goals, organizations must focus not only on recruiting a diverse executive-level workforce, but on keeping the talented women of color in their managerial ranks from leaving. As Intel Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Barbara Whye said: “We can’t hire our way to diversity.”
In the “Advancing All Women” analysis, women of color reported having less favorable experiences than white women in two key areas that influence their desire to stay with their company:
- A feeling of belonging;
- Satisfaction with their ability to achieve long-term career goals.
- Women and people of color face conscious and unconscious bias against their gender, race and, for some, religion. Often, they cannot be authentic at work and feel pressure to hide aspects of their lives, thereby increasing workplace stress and personal suffering.
- Despite increased investment and effort to attract women and people of color, many companies are not paying attention to the experiences of diverse talent. By not doing so, organizations are at risk of losing out on valuable talent. Companies must invest in retention and development strategies to retain and advance women of color.
- Without intervention, the already low percentage of women of color at the surveyed companies who are at the manager, senior manager, and executive levels – about 15 percent – is projected to decline over the next 10 years. However, if companies implement strategies that address hiring, promotion and turnover challenges, women of color could hold one in four – or 25 percent – of those positions by 2027.
What organizations can do:
First, ASK YOUR EMPLOYEES FOR INPUT, through surveys, focus groups and face-to-face conversation.
Second, GENERATE A FEELING OF BELONGING FOR ALL:
- Require every leader to demonstrate proactive inclusion and results;
- Set ambitious goals for gender equality and enforce them;
- Support sponsorship to increase the success of women;
- Create and use active business resource groups to powerfully enable innovation and problem solving;
- Evaluate your culture. Do you have a level playing field? If not, work to change inconsistent cultural attributes;
- Articulate the company’s business case for the empowerment of women of color and the positive impact inclusion has on all employees and the bottom line;
- Provide training on Unconscious Bias;
- Call out bias. Practice conscious inclusion with every interaction and communication.
Third, focus on LONG-TERM CAREER OUTLOOK via implementation of recruitment and retention practices sensitive to women of color:
- Recruit and appoint women of color to managerial and executive positions and to the corporate board of directors;
- Include women of color on selection teams;
- Ensure that talent management systems support and deliver equality objectives;
- Move more women of color into P&L positions;
- Develop a plan to eliminate any existing barriers to success for women of color in your workplace.
Fourth, ENSURE PARITY IN ALL JOBS AT ALL LEVELS OF THE ORGANIZATION
- Provide mentors and sponsors for high-potential women of color. Mentorship is a requirement. Sponsorship is a major advantage.
- Evolve the criteria your company uses for promotions to include diverse leadership styles.
The suggested interventions are not new; particularly for companies with a commitment to diversity and inclusion. For many, this research validates workplace realities while providing recommendations for forward-thinking leaders who are committed to creating inclusive environments. Now it is up to leaders to take action by embracing and supporting practices that help to advance ALL women. For organizations that acknowledge the experiences of women of color, it is important that you embrace systemic changes and practices to ensure equitable treatment for ALL employees. As with any critical business issue, your business plan and the resources required to take action are essential.
Juliette Mayers is Founder and CEO of Inspiration Zone LLC, a certified Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) specializing in diversity and inclusion strategy, brand management and thought leadership. She is the author of The Guide to Strategic Networking and A Black Woman’s Guide to Networking. Follow @juliettemayers and visit www.juliettemayers.com and www.inspirationzoneLLC.com
“Advancing All Women” How Women of Color Experience the Workplace (Network of Executive Women, Accenture, MERCER, 2018)
Delivering through diversity (McKinsey & Co., 2018)
Intel diversity chief on retaining black talent: ‘You can’t hire your way to diversity’ (Portland Business Journal, 2018)