February 11, 2022

Creating a Level Playing Field for Women of Color in the Workplace

Employee presenting

One definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens oneself. And if we are going to make the workplace more equitable, then it will take each colleague, manager, and leader to lean into their courage when it comes to disrupting the status quo. We cannot make the workplace better if we are not willing to be honest, transparent, and willing to create a more inclusive workplace.

When I wrote my first book, The Memo, I interviewed over 100 women of color. Over 70% of them stated that they felt like their managers were not invested in their success. In LeanIn.org’s The State of Black Women in Corporate America report, there are some inexcusable and downright offensive statistics when it comes to the advancement of Black women in the workplace. In the 2020 report, Black women held 1.6% of vice president roles and 1.4% of executive suite positions.1

To give you just a little more context, more than 590 companies employing more than 22 million people, along with a quarter of a million individual employees, have participated in the Women in the Workplace study on which LeanIn.org’s report was based. So, I don’t want you thinking these stats are isolated situations; they are common issues taking place across many companies.

The report shows that Black women receive less support and advocacy from their managers compared to the white women who were surveyed. Unfortunately, when a woman of color doesn’t have a manager who is supporting and advocating for her, that manager is denying the employee the opportunity to perform at her highest level and showcase her best work.

Without manager support, women of color often aren’t thought of for stretch assignments, and so are denied opportunities for growth. Managers could do more to advocate for employees of color by noticing if they are being socially isolated and working to help them navigate office politics.

I am by no means saying that all managers are displaying this lack of professional investment as it pertains to Black women, but these stats lead me to believe that not enough managers are creating an equal playing field. I believe that lack of managerial support is directly correlated with these low percentages of women of color, and Black women in particular, in leadership roles. Black and brown women are often not being retained and advanced in corporate America at the same rate as our white counterparts.

What could better look like if you were fully invested in everyone on your team? Because women of color cannot promote themselves, they need a success partner and champion as they continue to climb the ladder. And if Black women in particular are aware of these statistics and experience this ambivalent treatment from their managers, what type of psychological safety do you think it provides them? The answer is it doesn’t; it just perpetuates a system of racism.

When I was in corporate America, I worked with a couple of white men who used their privilege to help me advance in my career. Being a success partner to a woman of color on your team or in your department will require you to build a relationship with her. We can’t be the only ones working toward building sustainable and authentic workplace relationships. You sit in a unique position. You have the ability to grow, enhance, or stunt a person’s career. I don’t mean any disrespect by that, but the truth is the truth. As part of the management team, you hold a level of influence within your company or organization. You have the ability to be a partner on the road to success for a woman of color in the workplace.

And you have to help beyond words alone. You have to be the action verb. Being a champion will require you to help dismantle dysfunctional past systems and create new systems that don’t oppress women of color in the workplace. For example, if you have someone on your team who is clearly causing racialized toxicity, choosing to ignore that person’s behavior, tone, or language is not an option. It’s up to you to set a healthy tone for the team’s interpersonal behavior.

This might require creating norms and articulating which behaviors won’t be tolerated. Don’t forfeit the team’s development by never calling out those who are oppressing people on your team. And don’t allow the oppressors to play the victim while bullying others.

I wish that I had managers in my former life who championed an inclusive work environment. I can honestly say, over my 15-year career, I never experienced a manager who set the tone for equity and psychological safety. There was always some form of racialized bias that constantly went unchecked. When you’re the only or one of few on your team, this kind of environment is extremely isolating and demeaning. If you are not comfortable with managing a diverse team and holding all team members accountable, then you might consider being an individual contributor instead of a manager. Not everyone is meant to manage, and you have to decide if it’s fair to lead a team if you aren’t equipped to do so. It’s unfair to the women who aren’t valued by their managers. Too many women of color are choosing to leave corporate America, not because they want to work for themselves, but because of who they work for. I am sure you don’t want to purposely harm someone on your team, and if that’s true, you will require accountability and tools to help you lead with equity.

I created the Manager’s Pledge below and I hope you will consider signing it. I hope you will consider helping dismantle a toxic racial culture inside the workplace. And I hope that you are dedicated to the success of every person on your team. The pledge also asks you to take one step further by asking your organization for resources to ensure that you’re able to properly lead and invest in everyone on your team. It’s imperative that you help create an environment where women of color can come to you with racialized experiences and be truly heard through courageous listening practices. Remember, even if you don’t see the incident or have a relationship with someone who is causing harm, you still have to be an inclusive manager at all times. Being a courageous listener will require you to provide empathy, dignity, and respect. In other words, you will pledge to hear women of color out.

Creating an inclusive culture is not a one-time conversation or event. It’s my job and purpose to make sure I leave the workplace better than I found it; I can’t do that without addressing the role managers play in the advancement of women of color. I hope you will always be curious in your pursuit to figure out what better looks like. No one is doing it perfectly, so there will always be room to grow. But it’s hard to grow when your education is not cultivated and your actions are never held at a best-in-class standard. We shouldn’t hold managers to a low level of accountability. Inclusive culture starts from the top down. This call to action isn’t for white managers alone. We need an all-hands-on-deck effort when it comes to the advancement and safety of women of color in the workplace.

THE MANAGER’S PLEDGE

  • I will acknowledge that I have biases that I need to understand and reconcile.
  • I will commit to engaging in courageous conversations. They might sometimes be difficult, but I know they are necessary to create an inclusive workplace.
  • I will challenge myself to hold other colleagues accountable when I have heard or observed racialized tones, behaviors, and actions.
  • I will learn to humanize the experiences of all my colleagues and seek to understand and listen to their perspectives and lived experiences, particularly when they differ from my own.
  • I will share my experiences and educational journey to help other managers create restorative justice practices.
  • Even if I make a mistake, I commit to the daily practice of being a better manager who is committed to equity for all.

In addition to the Manager’s Pledge, I would encourage managers and colleagues to think about how they can continue to lean into their courage, so that implementing equitable practices and procedures, and initiating critical conversations are no longer viewed as courageous, but as normalized expectations instead.

As I reflect on my early growing pains of being a manager, I remember what it was like being promoted to manage a small team for the first time. Although I was extremely excited, I had never received any guidance, managed anyone before, or had any insight on how to give constructive feedback. That meant I had to learn how to be a good manager while on the job. What I quickly learned was even though I hadn’t received any formal training, I could still take the initiative to educate myself. I went to my local bookstore and purchased as many resources as I could to learn how to lead from a place of confidence, empathy, and equity. Some days I got it right, and some days, I am sure, I had a lot of room for improvement.

Being a manager might be challenging at times, yet one thing that always inspires me to work toward being a good manager is knowing that my actions have the capacity to make the workplace better than I found it. I have worked for managers who did not learn how to give constructive feedback and engage with me, and that made for some of my hardest times in my career. Yet, I also remember the times when I was lucky enough to have a manager who was invested in my success, which led me to thrive. Remember that you have the ability to be that for someone on your team.

*We encourage you to print and sign the Manager’s Pledge as well as share it with your teams and networks.

Reference

1 The State of Black Women in Corporate America, Lean In (December 1, 2021), found at https://leanin.org/research/state-of-black-women-in-corporate-america/introduction