Editor’s Note: Denise Hamilton is CEO and founder of WatchHerWork. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Despite promises from across the corporate world to diversify leadership and give people of all backgrounds equal opportunities, women of color remain stuck with little to no progress in sight. A recent study from McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that while women overall have more high-ranking roles than in previous years, women of color make up just 4% of C-suite executives, a percentage that hasn’t changed for several years. Women of color also continue to deal with discrimination at work, including just as many microaggressions as they did two years ago — all of which contribute to stress and burnout.
But it isn’t just people harboring bigotry that can make work life more difficult for women of color. Often, well-meaning co-workers and managers don’t realize that they’re burdening these women with additional responsibilities. In my practice advising companies on diversity and inclusion, I see such problems on a regular basis.
To fix this, executives must work to actively counteract these challenges, paving the way for women of color to pursue and succeed in leadership roles. Here are some things they must keep in mind:
We’re equal employees, not symbols
One major pitfall comes in the form of leaders presenting Black women to fellow employees as symbols of our race, gender or both. When a leader repeatedly cites these factors about an employee, describes them as an “inspiration” to others like them, or asks them to speak in meetings to provide a “women’s perspective” or a “Black perspective,” this isn’t just othering them. It’s also creating tremendous pressure.
In this environment, women of color know that every step they take will be seen by some as a reflection of an entire community. And any failure on their part will reflect poorly. When a White man makes a mistake, it’s generally seen as just him making a mistake. When women of color do, we know that some people will think, “Oh, see, that’s what happens when you promote someone based on their race or gender.”
So it’s best for leaders and managers to avoid “celebrating” Black women for being Black women. Instead, they should praise and reward the accomplishments as they would any other employee.
Additional time constraints
Women of color are routinely held up as symbols outside of the business as well. They’re often asked to serve on numerous panels and committees, deliver speeches and take part in media interviews — all to help the company burnish its diversity credentials in the eyes of the public.
I’ve worked with many Black women who have told me they felt obliged to say yes to all these requests. As a result, their travel and Zoom schedules become clogged — yet they’re still expected to get their work done. It’s exhausting.
Instead, executives and managers should let employees come to them and tell them when they want to participate in an outside event. A manager can send individual notes to various employees explaining that the company regularly receives requests for speakers, and that they might be a great fit, so if they’re interested and have the time, to let their manager know.
Myth of the ‘strong Black woman’
Black women are “less likely to report that their managers check in on their well-being or help them balance priorities and deadlines,” according to the study. I’ve found that this lack of support stems in part from the myth of the “strong Black woman” who has superhuman ability to withstand difficulties — a trope with a long cultural history. Having absorbed this view of Black women, and not knowing how to spot signs of stress and anxiety, many executives are less likely to reach out and help.
Leaders and managers should be sure to reach out equally to every employee to check on their well-being. Even those who might seem to need less help often do want it — they’re just not letting on.
Ultimately, the barriers holding back Black women are solvable. The more workplaces focus on each individual’s skills, strengths and accomplishments — and avoid the temptation to present certain individuals as representatives of marginalized communities — the more of a level playing field they’ll offer employees. It’s also up to leaders to listen to each employee about what they need to advance and succeed, and then to pull through in providing support.
The more this happens, the more organizations will be able to take some of their big promises about diversity in the C-suite and turn them into reality.