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  • Kate Gerson

After the Offer: 3 Ways to Stand with Black Women at Work

It’s Women’s History Month. Like any other month carved out to ensure deliberate attention for traditionally marginalized and historically erased people, the commemoration is meant to give us a few weeks of pause: to lift up the often unacknowledged contributions of women in history, celebrate the progress towards equality that we have made, and energize our efforts to continue striving towards greater gender parity and women’s rights. Appreciation of women on social media abounds.

As a mother to two incredible daughters, a woman who leads an organization, and a person continuing to do equity work in America in 2022, it’s hard not to linger on the progress yet to be made. Women continue to face regular violence and harassment in their relationships and workplaces, and are often failed by systems (criminal justice, social services, healthcare) in seeking justice or wellness afterwards; trans women are intentionally excluded from many women’s spaces; and women of color are often harmed and marginalized as the “women’s movement” moves blithely forward, reflecting its white and privileged roots.

If you have even a passing interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion at work, you’ve likely seen some article or report about how women of color, particularly Black women, in the workforce are among the most underpaid and underrepresented, experiencing bias at the highest levels. Even as women have made strides in pay and power, Black and brown women have not benefited from those at the pace of their white peers. In fact, for every 79 cents to a man’s dollar that a white woman makes, Black women are earning 63 cents, Native American women averaging 60 cents, and Hispanic women 54 cents. Black and brown women experience higher unemployment rates compared to white women and The Gallup Center on Black Voices finds that only 13% of Black women strongly agree they have access to good jobs in their community, and just over a third say they're living comfortably on their present income—the lowest scores among any measured demographic. Women of color comprise over 20% of the U.S. population but hold 4% of C-suite executive positions. While white women were in over 30% of management positions in 2021, women of color held far fewer: Asian, Black, and Latina women combined held only 11.4%. And even when they get into these upper level positions, they experience inequity, microaggressions, or pushback when they raise concerns or exert leadership. The last few years alone have seen a number of high-level and high-profile resignations of women of color from Fortune 500 companies, citing neglect, bullying, and unsafe environments. This can happen in organizations large and small, well-known and unheard of, old and new.

If, as you’re considering these numbers, you find yourself wondering, But maybe this is partially due to other factors that have nothing to do with race…don’t. Don’t let the long-held, biased narratives we have all internalized guide your understanding of this data. Track the extent to which you may have paused to ask if this is about the individuals themselves, and not the organizations in which they work. No: This is about bias. It exists in you, it exists in me, and it exists where we work. Our organizations are built by folks with the power, access, and money. That is so often white men; they have made some space for men of color and white women, and are finally making real moves to hire, elevate, and center women of color. But too many (most) organizations go proudly about the practice of increasing their diversity without ever making deliberate efforts toward improving their inclusion. So, as the demographics change, the way the companies operate do not.

If we examine this data through a lens that examines diversity, equity, and inclusion, a common pattern emerges: women of color are enthusiastically hired for their diverse perspectives and identities only to experience whiplash as the organization unconsciously (or subconsciously) marginalizes, misunderstands, and even mistreats them. The phrase “culture fit” comes up, aspersions are cast quietly and privately, mentorship and feedback are withheld and rifts emerge which are ignored or carelessly handled. The subsequent firing, resignation, or “counseling out” too often comes next: unnecessary, harmful exits that problematize the person and not the culture. Given the intersection of the ways gender and race affect how we treat each other, this pattern strikes easily and often for women of color.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re assessing your staff demographics in relationship to your hiring and promotion metrics, and see an obvious gap in the number of women of color in management and leadership positions. Recognizing the value of diverse perspectives and identities, and being committed to creating a diverse and equitable workplace, you set a goal to correct this imbalance. You hire several talented women of color under the shared agreement that you are seeking their innovation and input to improve your company and culture and, as a new hire comes on board, the leadership is excited, making deliberate efforts to welcome her, embed her in the team, and solicit her ideas. As she gets settled into the organization, she is able to recognize small issues that are likely invisible to the current leadership, and points them out. Her work history differs enough from the white dominant staff that she doesn’t organically know “how we do things around here” and isn’t “fitting in easily.” She isn’t getting the buy-in she needs from her peers and starts to withdraw. Clearly, there is growing tension and relationships start to fray. As a leader, you are struggling to manage the situation.

However, in this situation what she often reports is increasing isolation and a real lack of support, subtext, and supervision—the basics for setting someone up for success in a new role. As a white woman, I have not personally experienced this, but I have listened to many women of color share their experiences in these exact scenarios. I have read and heard how women of color are gaslit, ignored, or assigned to fix the problems of inequity (for free, of course, and in addition to their work). What was an exciting opportunity to be a leader and make real change becomes a bait and switch. Her persistence is considered confrontational by the organization, her frustration is blamed on her poor communication, and her passion and deliberate moves to create positive change get her labeled as—you guessed it—angry. No matter how it ends, until it does she will be repeatedly harmed and the company’s culture will suffer as the conflict and mistreatment are witnessed by many but not acknowledged by leaders.

This pattern persists and is recognizable to us because DEI work in organizations too often only focuses on the D—diversity—part of that acronym. We wrongly assume that the I—inclusion, meaning a sense of belonging, a sense of team, a sense of being valued—will organically come as more people of color, women and LGBTQIA+ community members enter the workplace. The issue with this plan for inclusion-as-a-result-of-diversity is three-fold: 1) It puts all the responsibility on those diversifying your organization to create their own welcoming spaces for themselves and others; 2) It addresses none of the antiquated and exclusionary workplace practices that ultimately stifle both individual and company innovation and success, keeping the new or different at bay and defaulting to habit or tradition without much thought; and 3) It initiates people into an environment in which they are set up to fail. This all results in a revolving door of employees, a culture of distrust, and an exodus of employees of color, exacerbating the initial problem further. The significantly higher attrition rates of Black professionals (who are 30% more likely to intend to leave their jobs than their white peers) proves the prolific impact of this pattern.

The good news is, we know what we have to do to stop this cycle and prevent further harm.

Organizations and their leaders can begin to break down patriarchal and old-fashioned ways of operating and deliberately shape environments that are designed for more than just those who created it or have worked in it historically. This requires focus and time given to creating essential processes and awareness so that the company and culture change with and for the people in it..

  • Set clear expectations and collaborative solutions for building a culture in which employees of all levels feel that they are known, valued, and integrated. Plan for culture building, professional learning, surveying, and upgrading so that the team evolves and the environment evolves with the team.

  • Spend time learning and explicitly discussing people’s individual working styles, ways of communicating, and needs. Notice and celebrate the fact that newer generations have higher expectations for a psychologically safe and inclusive place to work.

  • Establish transparent structures for goal setting, feedback loops, performance management, conflict resolution, and two-way humanizing communication. Spend time growing systems and people that take care of your team, and building up managers who have been elevated because of competencies rather than leadership to become strong team leaders.

Setting up these processes may seem formal or too much—may even set our teeth on edge because the work feels like it takes time we don’t have—but really they are about setting everyone on the level footing and erasing the secret coded cultural language that is often required to navigate white spaces. If everyone has the same shared information about who we are and how we work, then we have the opportunity to build a healthy foundation from which we can meet our goals. People will thrive, innovate, and stay. You’ll hit your diversity numbers, and you’ll achieve much, much more than that: You’ll actually leverage the diversity of the working community you found.

We’re missing out on genius.

As a country, we are missing out on the thinking, leadership, knowing, and seeing of so many people because of the defaults of a white dominant society. Let’s not wait for the hindsight of history to recognize the experience, perspective, contributions, and humanity of women of color. You’ve already made space; now make space for belonging.

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