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How colorism affects women at work

April 7, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

Colorism, or skin tone bias, is an insidious form of bias that impacts women with darker skin tones across ethnicities and races — and it’s an issue that isn’t on many leaders’ radars. An inclusive leader managing a diverse team must become aware of how colorism manifests not only among employees of different identities, but even among people from the same community who have different skin tones. Disrupting these biases in action could boost inclusion profoundly.

However, one of the more insidious aspects of colorism is that it’s tough to prove, and there’s often no recourse for those who experience it. Take Meera,* for example. When she moved to the United States from India to take on a role at a large consulting firm, she was thrilled to see another Indian woman on her team. As she navigated a new country and workplace culture, she was hopeful that working with someone with identities in common would help her build trust and advance her leadership on the team.

But soon she was surprised to find that her Indian colleague and other members of the team would ignore her or look away when she talked in meetings. She was routinely left off important emails and excluded from discussions. She was puzzled, but when she asked her manager for feedback, they said she was performing at the highest levels. The final straw came a few years later, when her manager asked a junior team member to make a client presentation for a project Meera had been leading.

“I spent years doubting myself, wondering what it was about me that wasn’t ‘acceptable’ or ‘professional.’ As I saw other women with similar identities and skills as me progress, there was only one explanation that made sense,” she said: her darker skin color. “I was so shocked, honestly in denial, until I couldn’t ignore it. I thought discrimination based on dark skin was an issue I’d escaped when I left India. But in the U.S., at a top company, it had followed me right back.”

Research shows Meera’s experience with colorism is far from isolated. A new report from Catalyst evaluated data from 2,734 women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. The study authors found that 51% of women from those groups have experienced racism in their current workplace. For women with darker skin tones, that can go as high as 69%.

Skin tone can be a bigger determinant of whether someone gets a job than their educational background, according to University of Georgia researcher Matthew Harrison. In the United States alone, one study found that Black Americans with lighter skin have higher socioeconomic status and tend to marry people with higher socioeconomic status, leading the authors to conclude that “the impact of skin color or shade was as impactful as race in American socioeconomic status.”

In Meera’s case, she had no official proof of experiencing colorism, and her challenges couldn’t be explained by gender, racial, or ethnic discrimination, so she was left without a case to be made to her manager or HR. Eventually, she left that lucrative job to start her own business.

What Meera went through isn’t unusual. I typically don’t make the “business” case for inclusion, but new Boston Consulting Group research continues to prove why leaders should address this issue even for business reasons: Employees who can be their authentic selves at work are happier, more motivated to give their best — and nearly 2.4 times less likely to quit.

So how can leaders prevent women of color from experiencing colorism at work — and make sure they don’t leave? Here are three ways to disrupt colorism in the workplace.

Educate yourself on the impacts of colorism.
Many women of color take tremendous risks in their quest for lighter skin by using skin-lightening products. There’s a multibillion-dollar skin-lightening industry worldwide, with the U.S. making up one-third of the market. Chemicals like mercury and hydroquinone in these products have been linked to lasting skin discoloration; damage to eyes, kidneys, and lungs; and birth defects, when used during pregnancy. The World Health Organization has called it a global health crisis.

This is what happens when the onus to “fix” systems of oppression is placed on those most impacted by it. The message that darker skin tones are somehow inferior to lighter skin tones is delivered to children at a young age and reinforced by Hollywood and popular media. It’s no wonder that colorism extends into the workplace, causing disadvantages for darker-skinned women in accessing job opportunities, career advancement, and societal acceptance.

Still, most white leaders aren’t even aware of colorism, said Janice Gassam Asare, PhD, DEI consultant and author of Decentering Whiteness in the Workplace:

Leaders are just getting to the point where there is openness in discussing the white dominant culture. There is a hesitancy to discuss issues like anti-Blackness, so colorism isn’t often a topic I see being discussed by corporate leaders. For non-white people of the global majority, colorism is definitely something we are aware of even if we don’t want to admit it.

The term “colorism” is believed to have been coined by novelist Alice Walker in 1982. It refers not only to the preference for lighter skin between different racial and ethnic communities, but also within those communities. Colorism is an enduring vestige of colonialism and white dominance around the globe and disproportionately harms women of color.

The first step in addressing colorism is to be able to spot this insidious and covert form of bias in action. This is precisely why it’s necessary for leaders to educate themselves on it. I’ve learned tremendously from the book Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Postracial America by Washington University professor Kimberly Jade Norwood. Gassam Asare recommends the work of international colorism expert Sarah L. Webb and TK Saccoh, who runs The Darkest Hue, an educational Instagram account that aims to uplift the stories of darker-skinned Black women.

Learn to identify and disrupt colorism.
Leaders can actively address skin-tone discrimination within their organizations by learning how to identify it in the first place.

First, audit whether your team or organization reflects the full diversity of society — in terms of race and gender, but also skin tones. Reflect on your team’s dynamics. Who gets the customer-facing or more visible opportunities? Are darker-skinned team members part of them? This also applies to hiring new employees. What would you discover if you reflected upon the skin tones of the last five people your organization hired? If there were people of color hired, were they of varying skin tones or very similar? Were darker-skinned people, particularly women, more likely to be hired for roles they were overqualified for, or rejected for roles they were eminently qualified for?

Once you begin to “see” these patterns, they become harder to ignore. Proactively notice if darker-skinned team members or job candidates are being treated differently, then speak up to disrupt the bias. Leaders must amplify all voices and call out biases and barriers when only lighter-skinned employees are favored for plum roles, advancement, higher pay, or customer-facing and other high-visibility opportunities.

Second, unless it’s deeply pertinent to work, people should avoid discussing or making observations about a colleague’s skin color. My white peers often compliment me on my “tan” when I return from a vacation in the sun. As a woman of color with lighter-skinned privilege, I’m able to brush it off, but for many darker-skinned people of color who may have experienced comments or marginalization within their communities, I’ve since learned this type of subtle act of exclusion could be retraumatizing. If you witness it, either disrupt it in the moment by saying something like, “We don’t comment on each other’s appearance here,” or bring it up privately with the commenter.

Taking a longer view, leaders must ensure employees understand why it can be exclusionary to make comments on a peer’s appearance or skin color at work. Extend manager training programs to include educating them on how various biases show up at work and how to take action when they witness it on their teams. To be comprehensive, it’s necessary to raise awareness of how even seemingly well-meaning comments (like the ones I receive on my vacation “tan”) are exclusionary and biased.

I can’t overstate the importance of identifying these biases in the first place to be able to address them. This applies to anyone who has lighter skin — I’ve had to educate myself and become aware of it as much as white peers, too. If Meera’s manager had been educated on colorism and observed the discriminatory team dynamics, they would have been able to disrupt the bias she faced, and she might have stayed with the organization.

Ensure colorism is included in organization-wide DEI awareness.
Actively consider and amplify the perspectives of employees from historically underestimated groups. Gassam Asare recommends giving employees a forum to discuss their experiences with colorism. “Corporations should amplify darker-skinned employees and their experiences and include conversations about colorism in DEI education,” she said.

Creating an inclusive workplace for people with darker skin tones is not a one-and-done fix. Simply taking an anti-colorism stance by itself isn’t good enough. Real change can happen only when leaders proactively educate themselves — and their teams — about how colorism shows up in the workplace and its outsize impacts on a person’s career.

For global organizations, hire local DEI practitioners to provide expertise on how skin-tone bias may show up in that market. Although lighter-skinned individuals are more likely to be hired, promoted, and advanced to leadership compared with their darker-skinned counterparts across the globe, local nuances could differ. For example, certain communities may use specific words that you’re not aware of to refer to darker-skinned people. And colorism intersects with and often exacerbates other forms of discrimination, such as caste bias in India and among the Indian diaspora.

State and reiterate that colorism won’t be tolerated on your team and at your organization. Articulating this often enables others to report experiencing or witnessing colorism. The Catalyst report found that 67% of women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups who work in a “climate of silence” — i.e., “an environment where employees feel restrained from constructively speaking up about organizational or work-related problems, concerns, or challenges” — experience racism at work, compared with 46% of those who work in more psychologically safe organizations.

. . .
Colorism is an insidious, globally prevalent bias that deeply impacts the lives and livelihoods of darker-skinned women. Leaders must become aware not only of how they may have perpetuated it, but they must also push back against it when they see it.

As Gassam Asare adds: “DEI consultant Dr. Sarah Webb has talked about how it’s impossible to eradicate racism if we’re not also focused on dismantling colorism.” When people discount the impact of skin-tone bias, they willfully ignore harmful ways certain people can progress while others are left behind. “An important part of addressing racism requires us to recognize ways that systems and structures grant us the power to wield over others,” she says.

by Ruchika Tulshyan


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