In a previous job, Minda Harts corrected her manager who was celebrating the company for “having the most diverse leadership across the country in our industry.” When Harts, now an assistant adjunct professor at New York University, pointed out that their organization shouldn’t be celebrating their diversity numbers just yet — all their leaders were white men and white women — her manager was visibly annoyed.
Harts recalls that her manager made her feel like she was wrong for even bringing it up. “Many senior leaders are not comfortable talking about race and they are doing their talent a disservice by ignoring racial equity in the workplace,” says Harts, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.
In 1976, five African-American women attempted to sue General Motors for discrimination, but their claims were dismissed because they weren’t covered within the existing legal framework. GM’s white female employees hadn’t experienced this particular discrimination, so the plaintiffs couldn’t sue for gender discrimination, and men of color hadn’t experienced it either, so the complaint couldn’t be covered under racial discrimination. The U.S. judicial system simply did not have the legal nuance to address experiences specifically of women of color.
More than 40 years later, I’ve seen similar issues persist across industries. While many white women have made gains in the American workplace, the gains for women of color haven’t been nearly as significant. According to McKinsey, white women hold only 19% of C-Suite positions, while women of color only hold 4% of them.
When Indra Nooyi retired from PepsiCo last year and Geisha Williams left PG&E this year, the list lost both the only Indian woman and Latina Fortune 500 leader in one fell swoop. There are no African-American women leading a Fortune 500 company currently.
It’s heartening to see more corporate leaders commit to gender equality, both through company-wide policies and pledges like Paradigm for Parity. However, many of these programs will fall short of addressing true systemic barriers to gender equality if they only propel white women ahead. A seemingly innocuous example is the large-scale adoption of casual dress cultures. Being able to dress comfortably at work sounds like a wonderful perk to have – but for women of color, who often have to repeatedly prove that they belong in corporate workplaces, dressing casually could further reinforce the stereotype that women of color aren’t leaders. Close to 50% of black and Latina scientists were mistaken for janitorial or administrative staff, found another survey. African-American women have reported facing discrimination at corporate workplaces if they come to work with their natural hair.
As organizations recognize the deeply-researched benefits of diversity at work, I see more leaders jumping headfirst into gender diversity efforts that do not consider the experiences of all women, particularly women of color. Corporate leaders need to focus on diversity and inclusion effort that take an intersectional approach, as coined by academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, to identify barriers that women of color face, due to the impact of their race and gender.
Here are some ideas on how corporations can do that.
Disaggregate pay data by gender and race. A wide body of research shows women of color experience higher pay gaps than white women. However, few organizations take a critical look at how employees are being paid by race and gender; it’s usually one or the other. PayScale’s latest report on the gender pay gap finds women of color are more likely to start at a significant pay disadvantage compared with white women, right at the beginning of their careers. This gap widens throughout their careers — and many leaders just don’t have the data to analyze the problem and begin to address it. Citigroup was recently lauded for publicly releasing their raw pay data – revealing that globally men made 29% more than women, and that the median pay for U.S. minorities is 93% of the median for white employees. There was no such data for women of color — who are impacted by both of these categories. Refusing to disaggregate this data has allowed corporations to only tell part of the story.
Analyze employee sentiment data by race and gender. Employee engagement surveys are another area where the analysis is typically only broken down by race or gender. Yet, we know that women of color in most organizations remain underrepresented and marginalized – held back by pervasive stereotypes such as the dominance stereotype for black women and submissive but highly-competent for Asian women. “If a company does an employee engagement survey, leaders have to look at the data that is specific to black women,” says Nicole Sanchez, founder and CEO of Vaya Consulting. “They’re often the most under employed and unemployed in several sectors and they’re often the most marginalized in any organization or industry.” Sanchez, whose clients are largely in the tech sector, says leaders often tell her that they don’t have enough black women at their organization to specifically design initiatives catered to that demographic. Her response? “If black women can thrive in your company, almost everybody else will be just fine.” She recommends making interventions – like gender equality programs – only after taking into consideration, the experiences of and suggestions by women of color, particularly African-American women.
Commit to funding and supporting employee resource groups (ERGs), particularly affinity groups for black employees. “Often companies have a women’s affinity group often run by white women and you see women of color beginning to leave because they don’t share the same concerns,” says Sanchez. When you address the most marginalized communities in the organization, you have a better shot at creating an inclusive environment. She also cautions against asking an employee to lead any diversity and inclusion efforts on top of their full-time work. “Give people time [out of their normal workload] to work on DEI,” she adds. One of her clients carved out 40% of an employee’s time — or two days a week — to have her work on setting up a black ERG.
Only embark on implicit bias or diversity training that takes an intersectional approach. I’m often asked to speak on implicit bias, diversity, and inclusion. One tech startup that requested my services asked that I stay away from talking about racial diversity and instead focus on gender and diversity of thought. I swiftly refused. Having any presenters, trainers, or facilitators address your organization about diversity and inclusion without mentioning the unique challenges that people of color face should be a red flag. The risks are profound; white employees may continue to remain oblivious to systemic barriers – ones they, as allies of people of color, should help dismantle. Plus, you could very well end up continuing to alienate the women of color in your organization.
Analyze opportunities for women of color to progress — and ensure your targets/goals to improve gender representation also include racial representation. Leaders must be intentional about putting as much emphasis and resources behind strategies for racial diversity as gender. “Much of the data over the last decade proves that women of color are not benefiting from these initiatives,” says NYU’s Harts. “Organizations must broaden their scope and make sure all women are not left behind–and that includes women of color.” This means, for example, that creating a target of the number of women serving on your company’s board should also include a target for how many of those members will be women of color. “Sometimes there’s a complacency when a company has a critical mass of white women in visible roles,” adds Sanchez. Interventions that help white women to succeed, like “Lean In” are counter-productive for women of color. “Ideas like advocating for yourself can work really well for white women, but no one considers those ideas in the context of the thinly-veiled race-based stereotypes like being ‘too aggressive’ or ‘hot-blooded’, which is what women of color face all the time,” Sanchez says.
It is not enough for companies to just focus on the vague goal of “advancing women” without making the effort to understand the unique challenges women of color face within the workplace. True diversity and inclusion can only be celebrated when all women experience equal access to opportunities to get equal pay and recognition for their work.
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