Career Advice

Diversity Initiatives Are Leaving Black Women Behind

You can publicly commit yourself to diversity in the workplace, put it in writing on social media, hire diversity officers, and shuttle tens of thousands of dollars into “diversity initiatives,” but if you don’t understand the complexities of creating an inclusive workplace, you’re not going to get any return on your investment.


That’s probably not a surprise to anyone looking around at C-suites, tech companies, academia, politics, and other leadership positions right now and wondering: where are all the Black women?

The truth is, they’re right in front of us, we’re just still failing them.

Black women face twice as much discrimination

While women entering the workforce know they are going to face both overt and covert sexism, Black women have racism to deal with as well.

We use the word “intersectionality” to talk about how skin color, gender, disability, and sexual orientation all influence a person’s experience of the world and the ways in which other people treat them. These things also contribute to unequal outcomes – and the interaction of more than one of these factors (say, skin color and gender), typically compound a person’s unequal treatment.

The effects of intersectional inequality can be felt in everything from education to housing to medical care, and they are persistent and intractable in myriad other dimensions of people’s lives. But it’s all become glaringly obvious in the workplace. So while white women and black men are also examples of minorities when it comes to positions of power, it’s women of color – and Black woman specifically – who are forced to be on guard continuously for both gender and racial bias.

Money doesn’t build meaningful connections between people of different genders and skin colors, it doesn’t help Black women ask for the jobs, promotions, or raises they have earned

There’s plenty of evidence that organizations have devoted time and resources to attempting to create an inclusive workplace, but there’s no amount of money that can magically change a company’s climate. It’s difficult, awkward work with the potential for legal ramifications seemingly lying like landmines all around us. But there’s no way around that hard work.

Money doesn’t build meaningful connections between people of different genders and skin colors, it doesn’t help Black women ask for the jobs, promotions, or raises they have earned, and it doesn’t help them feel more welcome in a workplace where no one has dealt with their own biases on a professional level.

Only when co-workers and managers no longer assume a male or a white worker is an innately better “fit” for a job, when Black women are allowed to speak up without getting labeled “angry,” when the culture is welcoming enough to make them a natural part of work units, and when workplaces are committed to their collective advancement can Black women take the jobs and salaries they’ve earned by being just as ambitious, educated, hard-working, and committed as their co-workers. Instead, they are still being excluded from the opportunities and relationships that help us all succeed in business.

The double-bind and the advancement of white women

The “double-bind” (another helpful phrase of discourse on intersectionality) of racial and gender discrimination is most obvious when diversity programs improve the representation of only white women in management positions.

“Diversity” isn’t just one thing. And it’s hard to simply focus on “people who are not white men.” When we do, we miss the nuances that give everyone from Latino men to Black women an equal playing field.

The Kapor Center – which is dedicated to making the field of technology more diverse – even found that efforts that target just one group, such as women or Black people, end up overlooking important differences at the intersections of race and gender. That phrase “intersectionality” might sound like a buzzword, but it’s an important way to paraphrase what’s happening here.

Even in a 2014 Op-Ed for HuffPost, the Center recognized that “women from different socioeconomic, racial, regional, and educational backgrounds may have very different experiences from each other and a one-size-fits-all approach for engaging women will not necessarily address these nuanced experiences.”

Take it from Skip Spriggs, the president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, which promotes the advancement of Black professionals into the executive ranks.

“Diversity and inclusion awareness has never been higher in this country than it is right now, and just about every company will tell you that they’re getting better,” he says. “But when you disaggregate the data, there’s one underrepresented group that’s not getting better at all — Black employees.”

And Black women bear the brunt of these failures.

Even our use of the phrase “people of color” – an attempt to respectfully refer to non-white people without leaving anyone out – has failed us. It has allowed us to conflate Black workers with those of Latino, Asian, Indigenous, or other ethnic backgrounds and experiences. It even allows us to comfortably think all Black professionals need and want the same things.

Do all white men want the same thing in the workplace? Of course not.

So why do we assume all Black workers have the same needs? Or all Black women?

How can one giant “diversity initiative” even claim to address everything from overt racism to subtle but invalidating, insulting, and belittling microaggressions, much less do it for all of its workers?

But we like our success quantifiable and measurable. Our diversity efforts come neatly bound in a binder or a slide deck from a consultant. Alas, when that consultant moves on to the next job and your senior Black female leaders leave because they weren’t treated with the same respect as her colleagues, what’s your ROI?

The workers are there, we’re just failing them

At the rate we’re going, white women will reach wage parity with men in 2059. That’s a long way off.

But if that frustrates you, consider that if we continue with the snail-like progress we’ve made, Black women won’t reach that point until 2130. (Hispanic women, meanwhile, will have to wait until 2224!).

And that’s just a paycheck. Imagine how long it will take for us to reach parity in the C-suite where, in 2020, only 21% of leaders are women, a paltry 4% are women of color, and a mere 1% of those are Black women.

Imagine how long it will take for us to reach parity in the C-suite where, in 2020, only 21% of leaders are women, a paltry 4% are women of color, and a mere 1% of those are Black women.

Let’s take it up a level. Right now, there are a record 37 women leading Fortune 500 firms (up from 33 last year). But only three are women of color and none are Black or Latina.

According to a study by Lean In, Black women account for 7% of the U.S. population but are 12% of minimum wage earners. Now consider that in light of the fact that Black women are among the most educated groups in America.

Black women hold the most degrees of any group of gender and skin color combined compared to the size of their population – and they also have the most college enrollees. 9.7% of Black women are enrolled in college in the U.S. Meanwhile, 8.7% of Asian women are enrolled, and only 7.1% of white women. 6.1% of white men are enrolled in college.

It’s clear that the barriers Black women face in pay parity and advancement are not a result of their education.

Black women hold the most degrees of any group of gender and skin color combined compared to the size of their population – and they also have the most college enrollees.

These barriers are also not a matter of hard work or ambition. In fact, CNBC and SurveyMonkey’s 2020 Women at Work survey found that 75% of Black women view themselves as very ambitious career-wise and 40% had their eyes set on a management position within the next five years.

Yet, according to Lean In as well as McKinsey & Company’s 2019 “Women in the Workplace” study, for every 100 men promoted and hired to an entry-level manager position, only 72 women are promoted and hired for the same role. For Latinas, it’s just 68. And for Black women, the number is a mere 58 compared to those 100 white men.

At the moment, things don’t look set to get significantly better. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black women in the U.S. have been nearly twice as likely as white men to report that they’d either been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours and/or pay reduced.

To make matters worse, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, 60% of male managers in the U.S. said they are now uncomfortable participating in workplace activities with women such as mentoring, one-on-one meetings, or social outings. Now, just 26% of Black women say they’ve had equal access to sponsorship and mentoring opportunities in the company and a whopping 59% say they’ve never had a single informal interaction with a senior leader where they work. That’s unacceptable since we know how important mentoring is for diversity representation in the workplace.

This needs to change, but it won’t be easy. Black women were found to be much more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace than their white female co-workers, according to a study that examined data from U.S. workers from 1997 to 2016. Opportunities for mentoring can’t change until the climate for women changes altogether.

Those of us who have been promoted know that while we earned our positions on our merits, we were not simply plucked out of obscurity for our new roles. We very likely knew someone above us who took the time to mentor and/or support us or simply sat down for a conversation at some point to make us feel like part of a team.

First comes racism

Racism and implicit biases when it comes to judging people’s performances are the most obvious (and reparable!) impediments to allowing Black women a place at the table. Lean In co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas says that this begins at the hiring process:

“We know that performance bias — or this belief that men are slightly more capable or competent than they are, and that women are slightly less capable and competent than they are — is so pervasive that it impacts our decision-making.”

Of course, sexism plays a big role here as well:

“Men are typically hired based on potential and what we believe they can do,” Thomas adds, “while women are typically hired and promoted based on what they’ve already accomplished.”

Microaggressions are major

Not all racist behavior is easy to identify and measure. Sometimes we attempt to keep people “in their place” (which is, of course, below our own) with microaggressions. And while we call them “micro,” their effects are anything but.

These are the brief but insulting or insensitive comments we make when we remark on people’s differences, whether it’s their hair, their accent, their clothing, or their perspective on an issue. It’s a form of hostile communication that we don’t always think of as hostile when we’re saying it – but the person we’re saying it to feels the burn. It stigmatizes anything that is not commonplace for the dominant group. It’s anything that comes after phrases such as “Black people just love…” or “It’s so Southern when you…

Microaggressions aren’t limited to races, but they are very effective at making people of color – and especially Black women – leave the workplace. According to the World Economic Forum, people of color who experienced microaggressions in the workplace were more likely to quit their jobs with more than a third (35%) of Black professionals intending to quit within two years compared to 27% of white professionals – 33% of Black men who experienced microaggressions intended to quite while 36% of Black women did.

And this makes sense – why are we surprised when an educated and ambitious group of women realize that a company isn’t going to make space for them to succeed?

We demand emotional labor

Black women have long had to play the role of educators in the workplace. And when they aren’t asked to do that, we simply don’t ask for any input at all and demand they suck it up when it comes to microaggressions. That would be emotionally exhausting for anyone.

Dr. Dnika Travis, the Vice President of research at Catalyst, has reiterated the point that the inequalities that Black women face at work are emotionally taxing. When a worker constantly has to be “on guard to protect against bias, discrimination and unfair treatment,” their job becomes a lot more laborious. According to Catalyst’s 2018 report, 58% of Black women reported being “highly on guard” in the workplace.

Consider it a privilege if you’ve ever been able to go to work without steeling yourself for inevitable comments about your background, appearance, or dialect. The extra burden of this “emotional tax” has been highly detrimental to companies’ retention of Black women.

A sense of community

You don’t have to like everyone you work with, but it’s only fair that people act professional and civil to one another in the workplace. No one should be disrespected, whether it’s by snide remarks or overhearing offensive jokes.

But creating an inclusive climate is so much more than that (and most companies haven’t even achieved the easy part yet). There’s no one way to do it, but we do know that it’s worth the effort. Inclusive climates have been shown to reduce conflict and make turnover from that conflict less likely to occur, allowing companies to retain their best talent. If nothing else, it saves money.

Inclusive climates include everything from fair employment practices, to thoughtful onboarding, to proactively integrating the identities of employees, while also giving everyone the opportunity to participate in decision-making and access to promotions.

The how-to’s for this don’t come neatly packaged in a binder. They require a lot of deliberate and individualized effort based on the workspace’s current situation and future goals.

When your company is successful, you’ll know it, because you’ll see more high-quality outcomes, innovative solutions, and increased solidarity among employees. Everyone wins.

Mentoring moments

We already know that Black women are not receiving support and sponsorship or finding mentors for formal or informal interaction at the same rate as their white counterparts.

That has to change. Mentorship has been proven to be one of the most effective programs for career advancement by underrepresented employees, and sponsorship provides an opportunity to express concerns, ask hard questions, and display frustration safely. Without them, none of us is as good at managing the strain of a career on the rise.

Even short-term, positive interactions between a worker and mentor can transform how people experience work. But if there’s no one like you higher up on the ladder or no one willing to be alone in a room with you because they fear an accusation of sexual harassment, it’s hard to see a trajectory for success. The truth is, we all get by with a little help from our friends.

When businesses are bad, start your own

Black women are wisely leaving nonprofit and corporate jobs after being treated poorly and denied promotions. But they aren’t just walking away from their career ambitions – they’re starting their own companies.

The relentless lack of equal opportunities in traditional workspaces has made Black women the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs among women, with their numbers growing by more than 600% between 1997 and 2017.

Sadly, Black women have had to make do with less as founders as well. They receive very little venture funding and angel start-up money. In fact, less than .02% of all early-stage venture funding goes to Black women. And according to a report by digitalundivided’s Project Diane, companies founded by Black women received only .0006% of all venture capital funding raised by startups between 2009 and 2017.

The relentless lack of equal opportunities in traditional workspaces has made Black women the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs among women, with their numbers growing by more than 600% between 1997 and 2017.

Nevertheless, with no clear path up the corporate ladder and a lack of appreciation of their work at every level, large companies are seeing high attrition rates as Black professionals of all genders turn to entrepreneurship or startups in order to take advantage of the autonomy, opportunity, visibility, and sense of belonging corporate America never provided despite knowing that it would make them more profitable.

That alone should be a wakeup call for business striving to meet diversity goals who could have nurtured talent at the entry-level but missed their chance.

No measurements of success

Diversity efforts also miss the mark for most Black women because they were made by and for white people. All those years of handwringing about diversity numbers haven’t made things better, it’s simply given rise to a multibillion-dollar “diversity industry” that packages one-size-fits-all solutions into tiny modules that don’t dare to rock the boat.

And even after companies invest money in these modules, they rarely have anyone try to measure whether or not they worked. According to a report released by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a survey of 3,900 employees of large U.S. companies helped them conclude that “few employers actually track or attempt to measure the return on investment of the initiatives and programs they’ve launched.”

No one likes diversity seminars and they don’t work anyway. So we shouldn’t mistake the presence of diversity professionals for an actual rise in real diversity within companies.

Light-weight mentorship programs where no one really gets together, one-off bias training seminars, setting up an office for grievances, and putting effort into positioning oneself as a thought leader on diversity are all a recipe for failure when it comes to meaningful change. It’s “diversity theater.”

Again, even in cases when diversity initiatives do work, they tend to work best for white women. According to a COQUAL report, some black professionals “believe that white women have been the primary beneficiaries of diversity initiatives and have failed to use their newfound power to advocate for other underrepresented groups.”

Ways forward

Designing strategies and benchmarks, dismantling traditional advancement structures, and trying to ensure equal access to mentorship opportunities will be no easy feat. There will be extra work, plenty of opportunities to be humbled by failure, and lots of uneasy conversations.

The key, however, will be to collect and analyze data to take a hard look at pay and employee engagement, separating out variables like skin color, gender (as well as sexual orientation or physical ability). If you can’t identify where the problems are, you can’t start fixing them.

Furthermore, targets for diversity and inclusion programs must be intersectional – they cannot address gender only. And companies should be willing to try new approaches if their initial efforts do not result in equal pay, recognition, and opportunities for advancement for historically undermined groups such as Black women.

There’s been no shortage of frustrating messages from people high up on the corporate ladder when it comes to their inability to build more inclusive and diverse workplaces. But addressing intersectionality starts from the top. CEOs and senior executives need to acknowledge their unconscious bias, force themselves to see where disparities have previously been invisible to them, and transparently work towards the creation of an inclusive workspace so that they are hiring, retaining, and promoting the variety of workers who deserve a seat at the table.

Further Reading:

How corporate America’s diversity initiatives continue to fail Black women

Even at “Inclusive” Companies, Women of Color Don’t Feel Supported

Ambition is not the problem: Women want the top jobs—they just don’t get them

Your Company’s Diversity Initiative May Fail If It Overlooks This One Thing

Kapor Center: Diversity Data Shows Need To Focus on Women of Color

The Dearth Of Black CEOs: How Corporate Diversity Initiatives Ignore People Of Color

WeForum: 5 ways intersectionality affects diversity and inclusion at work

Where Black Female Founders Can Find Funding, Resources, and More

The barriers to funding equality persist for Black women