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Untold Stories: Exploring the Hidden Realities of Black Women in the Workplace (Part II)

PART II: Amplifying Voices: From Barriers to Solutions


In recognition of Black History Month, this two-part series offers an in-depth look into Black women's challenges in corporate environments. This series aims to illuminate these critical issues through firsthand accounts and research-backed insights.


In Part One, we delved into two primary obstacles Black women encounter while advancing in their corporate careers by sharing anonymized personal anecdotes.

In Part Two, we will discuss the remaining two barriers and suggest three practical steps organizations can take to improve the experience and retention of talented Black women.


3.       Limited Developmental Support
"I would constantly ask my manager, who I worked for four years, for feedback, and she would say I was doing a great job. A new role was created, and I just knew I would be perfect for it. However, she told the hiring manager and me that I just wasn't ready before I could even apply."

Authentic backing for career advancement should encompass personalized development strategies that target career objectives and skill enhancement. Many Black women have shared with me that they don't receive intentional development support. Too often, Black women are urged to lead DEI initiatives such as employee resource groups under the guise of "stretch projects" or a means of showcasing their leadership without assessing if that matches their career ambitions.


According to Lean In's 2020 report, The State of Black Women in Corporate America, "…compared to white women, Black women are less likely to have managers showcase their work, advocate for new opportunities for them, or give them opportunities to manage people and projects. Black women are also less likely to report that their manager helps them navigate organizational politics or balance work and personal life."


Too often, Black women are offered a carrot of additional, unrelated work under the premise that it will position them for a promotion, only for them not to receive it. Rather than relegating Black women to unrelated stretch projects or nonessential, unpaid roles, managers must be held accountable for providing thoughtful, bias-free development recommendations and experiences.

 

4.       Biases in Leadership Perception

I was on a hiring panel, and a Black female candidate was the clear front-runner. One of the leaders on the panel claimed that she lacked "executive presence." When I probed deeper, he couldn't produce a valid reason. I was frustrated! This woman was extremely qualified, experienced, and well-spoken. I know deep down inside that it was simply bias.

If qualified Black women are not being promoted to leadership positions, could it be because the hiring managers cannot "see" them as leaders? In Lean In's State of Black Corporate America report, research revealed that Black women are more likely to have their competence questioned and more likely to face skepticism regarding their expertise. These biases contribute to obstacles in career advancement in that Black women do not fit the typical leader stereotype. For example, the study "The White Standard: Racial Bias in Leader Categorization" by Ashleigh Shelby Rosette et al. explored how race influences perceptions of leadership in business by conducting four experiments. Findings revealed that people consistently associated being white with leadership more than they did with non-leaders and that white leaders were rated more favorably than non-white leaders. Their results support what Black women often experience—that being white is a central characteristic of the business leader prototype.  


One manifestation of this bias is the concept of "executive presence." Executive presence (EP) is inherently problematic when examined under the lens of bias. It is an elusive concept based on white male leadership norms that both men and women struggle to demonstrate. However, the repercussions of not having EP are far more dire for people of color, particularly Black women. When the traditional perception of a leader significantly contrasts with that of Black women in both race and gender, unjust biases can inhibit the recognition of Black women's leadership skills.


In 2012, Coqual conducted an extensive study on executive presence. They found that multicultural professionals and women struggle with EP because they feel they are held to a stricter code and struggle to conform to demonstrate EP while also remaining true to themselves. Additionally, the study found that "the top jobs often elude women and professionals of color because they lack 'executive presence' (EP) or underestimate its importance. And they're simply not getting the guidance they need to acquire it." This results in a significant amount of impression management and racial codeswitching in an attempt to adhere to norms that may be a moving target or that, due to bias, they may never have the chance to achieve. When it comes to Black women, EP is often used as a catch-all for deep-seated bias vs. an objective evaluation of leadership capabilities or potential.


 

There is power in telling your story. If you recall my story from Part One, I was passed over for a promotion. I ultimately left the company feeling hurt and disillusioned, not because I didn't get the job, but due to the hostile work environment created by the new director, which led me to resign.


During our initial team meeting, he assigned me to lead a project already being led by my direct report, the Training coordinator, and I asked a question to clarify his statement. In our subsequent one-on-one discussion, he referred to that meeting and accused me of being "hostile." That word shocked my system, causing my body to go numb. I calmly gathered myself and requested an example. In his response, he mimicked my question from the meeting with an exaggerated neck roll, confirming that he saw me as an outdated, racist stereotype. This incident, following several microaggressions, was the breaking point. Despite consistently receiving outstanding performance reviews and never having lodged an HR complaint, my concerns fell on deaf ears when I reached out to HR.


That encounter marked my introduction to "workplace trauma." When I recounted my experience to friends and family, I discovered that almost every Black woman I knew had encountered or knew someone who had faced a similar situation. Hearing so many Black women share the same stories with different characters and settings broke my heart.


For those who choose to speak up about their experiences before exiting, the response from HR can be disheartening. Too often, complaints of bias or racism are brushed aside, as HR professionals often lack the cultural competency and proper training to address them in practice effectively. This leaves Black women grappling with internal battles and feelings of dejection while questioning whether their experiences are valid and whether reporting them ever yields any meaningful change.


Faced with systemic biases and unequal treatment, some Black women don't just leave their organizations, like I did, in pursuit of better opportunities; they exit the workforce entirely to pursue entrepreneurship. In fact, according to research from the Brookings Institute, the growth rate of Black-women-owned businesses outpaced that of women-owned businesses overall and Black-owned businesses, increasing by 18.14% between 2017 and 2020. This exodus not only deprives organizations of diverse talent but also underscores the urgent need to address persisting issues of bias and discrimination.


 

If you are an ally, leader, or HR professional looking to prevent and eliminate these barriers, consider the following:


1.       Fix the System, Not the Person

Under the guise of addressing the underrepresentation of Black women in leadership roles, many companies jump to creating special leadership programs for Black women. While this may work for some, it implies that Black women are not in leadership because they are not qualified or ready. When, in fact, they often are.


The core issue is that qualified Black women are consistently overlooked for promotions, and those decisions go unexamined. In one study titled "Bias in Context: Small Biases in Hiring Evaluations Have Big Consequences," Jay H. Hardy III and his team examined the impact of even a tiny amount of bias on women. Their findings showed that, despite having equal gender representation in the candidate pool, when slight bias was present, it significantly reduced the likelihood of qualified women being hired. Therefore, the solution lies not in training but in critically evaluating and revising internal practices to eliminate discriminatory barriers. Revisit your recruitment processes to include manager training. Ask yourself: How am I actively identifying and dismantling unconscious bias in my promotion and hiring processes to ensure that qualified Black women are not unjustly overlooked?


2.       Require Culturally Competent HR Professionals


Traditional internal investigative methods often fall short when Black women complain of bias. Usually, the complaints don't call out bias explicitly since many Black women are afraid of being accused of playing "the race card." The nature of bias is inherently subtle and difficult to substantiate with conventional evidence--especially to the untrained eye. Even those who are on the receiving end of bias often struggle to decide if the person is just being rude or insensitive or if the treatment is based on their race or gender. As human beings, we all have implicit or unconscious biases. Numerous studies have verified this, and Black women, who sit at the intersection of race and gender, are more vulnerable to experiencing the negative repercussions of bias.

HR professionals, specifically those in employee relations roles, are the front line of ensuring we have a bias-free and inclusive workplace. A generic DEI training for HR professionals is not sufficient. Unaddressed sources of systemic bias in HR will undermine even the most effective DEI initiatives. By not ensuring that we equip HR professionals with HR-specific cultural competency training so they can effectively address complaints from Black women, we lose the opportunity to truly create an inclusive experience for Black women in the workplace, as well as increase the risk for EEOC complaints and lawsuits.


3.       Engage and Listen to Black Women


To shed light on the frequently neglected stories of Black women, companies should examine the experiences of Black women through customized surveys or internal audits. This will help proactively identify and address the specific hurdles they encounter. Often, companies shy away from explicit practices in support of Black women and rebrand it to be for women or women of color. Yet, study after study shows that Black women are consistently experiencing more bias in the workplace in contrast to their peers. They are the barometer of success of inclusivity. By courageously ensuring the stories of Black women are told within your company, you will ensure that talent management policies are just and inclusive, supporting the career advancement of one of the most marginalized groups in the workplace. And when Black women's experience improves, everyone's experience improves.


 

Removing obstacles to the career progression of Black women demands transformational strategies to tackle systemic biases and cultivate a workplace of true inclusion and fairness. Neglecting this not only robs organizations of diverse skills and perspectives but also hinders the growth and innovation potential that comes from embracing a genuinely diverse and inclusive workforce

 

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