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Untold Stories: Exploring the Hidden Realities of Black Women in the Workplace

Updated: Feb 17

PART I: Silent Barriers: Unpacking the Challenges Black Women Face


In recognition of Black History Month, this two-part series, offers an in-depth look into the challenges Black women face in corporate environments. This series aims to shed light on these critical issues through firsthand accounts and research-backed insights. It is essential to highlight that all quotes and narratives are anonymized to respect the privacy of those who shared them with me, whether in personal discussions or confidential coaching sessions.


Part One delves into two primary obstacles that Black women encounter while advancing in their corporate careers. Part Two will address the remaining two barriers and suggest practical steps that organizations can take to improve the experience and retention of talented Black women.


 

In the realm of modern corporate culture, the mandate for diversity and inclusion transcends mere ethical obligations, it is a cornerstone for strategic innovation and growth. Despite strides made in diversifying the workplace, Black women encounter persistent systemic barriers that stall their career advancement. Insights from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org's Women in the Workplace Study illuminate a problematic reality: Black women are starkly underrepresented in leadership positions holding a mere 1.6% of vice president-level positions or higher. However, Black women continue to be a highly qualified talent pool with a strong desire to lead as shown in Coqual’s Report: Black Women Ready to Lead. Therefore, the question remains: what is impeding their progress?


Eight years ago, I was passed over for a promotion for a director position. The position, reporting directly to the VP of HR, was created after the previous director, my former manager, was laid off. This role was responsible for leading a department that I played a key role in establishing. Progressing from a specialist to a manager, I developed 90% of the courses and programs, introduced the company's first LMS, spearheaded various strategic talent management initiatives, and won an award from Training Magazine for my contributions. Interestingly, the hiring manager for the role, the VP of HR, never personally congratulated me on my award, despite passing by my desk that sat outside of her office daily.


Despite praising –and expressing surprise— at my performance in the interview she told me that she chose my former direct report, “Tom,” citing the need for someone who could "influence senior leaders." Tom, who started as my subordinate, was quickly promoted to my peer—without my consultation—for a new role to oversee leadership development programs as an individual contributor. Due to his role, he frequently attended post-work events and gatherings to mingle with executives. In other words, he had the access and exposure to influence.


While I admit I lacked the influence over senior leaders at that time, Tom was also unqualified for the role. He never managed people and had no experience in departmental oversight. Even the programs he created were based courses I designed and trained him on.

After dedicating myself for three years, receiving an industry award, and consistently earning high performance reviews, I observed an inexperienced colleague being promoted ahead of me in less than half the time. It became evident that he was on the fast track for advancement. If they had genuinely nurtured my development, I believe I would have had the chance to progress as well. However, they never had the intention of ever doing so.


I grew up hearing that “we” had to work twice as hard to be successful, and throughout my professional life, I did just that. However, this experience made me realize that hard work alone might not be enough if my progress can still be hindered by my gender and the color of my skin. Subsequently, I left that organization, earned two more awards, obtained my ICF coaching credentials, and eventually launched my own company.

 

Over the years, I have guided and supported many Black women in overcoming workplace challenges. Our stories often go untold. Many times, we are compelled to leave our jobs, feeling defeated, in search of roles that better align with our skills and a supportive environment for Black women. These stories are not captured in DEI strategies, talent management processes, or board reports. To commemorate Black History Month, I plan to share these stories. I have grouped them into four prevalent barriers that impede the advancement of talented Black women. These barriers not only hinder their progress but also impose an "emotional tax" leading to a unique, and often unheard, experience that has a negative effect on not only their workplace experience but their overall wellbeing.


 

1.          Unequal Workloads

After working for this company for 14 years, I was being groomed for a promotion and needed additional marketing experience, so they transferred me to the marketing team. I started in January, and within my first month, I negotiated a multi-million-dollar deal with an international company and received numerous accolades from leadership.
By March, they doubled my portfolio, leaving me with the largest portfolio out of my five peers of white males. I felt overwhelmed and started to experience health issues as the workload was unsustainable. When I sought support, I was told: “For what we pay you, you need to figure it out.”

Black women often face heavy project loads without corresponding recognition or promotion which often leaves them feeling undervalued and overlooked. Frequently, the added responsibility involves nonessential projects and tasks. In their article “For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly,” by Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup, they state: “… women and people of color do more office housework and have less access to glamour work than white men do.” When they do get access to strategic projects, they are often utilized in a supportive role without receiving the proper recognition for their contributions.


Many of my clients have shared stories of how they designed and developed highly visible and strategic initiatives only for them to be transferred to their white colleagues post-launch, who received recognition for the work. At one company, I was excited to work with my Black female manager to design a highly visible strategic initiative to support Black executive women at the firm. Just before the project was introduced, it was handed over to my white colleague who was subsequently promoted, and the initiative was showcased in a national magazine.  


Whether the overwhelming workload consists of high-profile tasks, extra projects without assistance, or being tasked with initiating and executing projects only for others to take credit, these patterns underscore a systemic challenge that Black women encounter in the workplace.


 

2.       Lack of Constructive Feedback

A director role became available on my team, and when I inquired with my boss about applying, she gave me the green light. During our subsequent one-on-one session, she mentioned that I focused either too much on the big picture or get too caught up in details and stated “I need you to be in the middle.” Before I could seek further clarification, she left for another meeting.
In our next meeting, I came prepared to ask for specific examples so I could understand her feedback. As soon as the meeting started, she stated: “You know, you’re not going to get the director position because of the big picture thing. I guess you can interview if you want, but you’re not gonna get it. You can interview for the exposure, I guess.”
Given my daily interaction with the interview panel over the years, exposure was not a priority for my development. I left the meeting with the impression that she was implying: "It would be a waste of time for both you and them to proceed with the interview."

Meaningful feedback is essential for growth no matter your race or gender. Unfortunately, it is frequently withheld from black women, with critiques often veiled in ambiguous terms without any supporting examples or actionable advice. A study by Textio revealed that: “Black women receive nearly 9x as much non-actionable feedback compared to white men under 40.” Moreover, when women do receive feedback, it is often not related to business outcomes and centered around their personality and communication style.


This disparity robs Black women of the critical feedback needed to develop and advance their careers. Feedback mechanisms must be timely, specific, actionable, and devoid of subjective biases to promote equity.


 

You’ve heard the stories of three qualified women who, despite their ambitions, did not receive the feedback, coaching, development, or support needed to excel in their career.


In next week’s installment, we will cover the remaining two barriers black women face in the workplace: limited development support and biases in leadership perception. Then, the focus will shift to actionable strategies that can lead to meaningful change within organizations.

 

 

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Powerful commentary, Raydiance, thank you for writing this and citing important resources. I will share this with my team and others. Many (all?) of my colleagues can relate to your story and I hope that together we can advance a greater understanding of these real-life experiences and the need for organizational change.

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