Women of Color Aren’t Supported At Work, Managers Can Change That.


By: Amadi Taylor

Research shows that women of color have the drive, determination, confidence, and desire to succeed in the workplace. Although, the same energy isn’t always reciprocated.


In an article done by the Harvard Business Review, women of color aren’t always supported in the workplace. In a recent Nielsen survey, 64% of black women in the United States agree their goal is to make it to the top of their profession; that’s nearly double the percentage of non-Hispanic white women with the same goal. McKinsey and Leanin.org meanwhile report that 83% of Asian women, 80% of black women, and 76% of Latinas say they want to be promoted, compared to 75% of men and 68% of White women in their study.


Representing 18% of the U.S. population, women of color only make up 4% of C-Level positions in 2018. Graduating from a prestigious business or law school doesn’t seem to help much. Of the 532 African-American women who earned their MBAs at Harvard Business School 1977 and 2015, only 67 (13%) have achieved the highest-ranking executive positions, compared to 161 (19%) of African-American men and 40% of 150 non-African-American Harvard Business School Alumni.


Factors that prevent women of color from advancing at work differ from those of white women and even men of color. A study done in 2006 from five large U.S. companies show that women of color are most likely to experience workplace harassment among all groups. Women of color are held to a higher standard than their white and male peers and presumed to be less qualified despite their credentials, work product or business results.


According to the McKinsey and Leanin.org study, women of color receive less support from their managers. They are less likely to have bosses who promote their work contribution, help them navigate organizational politics, or socialize with them outside of work. This can lead to them feeling left out of the informal networking to potential propel their careers.


Managers can sometimes do this unconsciously: When looking for employees to sponsor, most executives apply the same rules we use when seeking out new friends: they search for people like them, with similar life experiences. Even though this is human nature, it can reinforce gender and racial biases.


Leaders can help women of color on their teams to advance. The article proposes six actions that can be taken.


Take initiative. Being the only women of color on a team can be overwhelming. Sometimes, you’re torn when you should speak up or not. Managers can help employees overcome this hesitation by extending a personal invitation to attend office gatherings and making it clear that they look forward to getting to know them better. Some male bosses have become more cautious since the #MeToo Movement, but appropriate outreach is important.


Give credit where it is due. Women of color can often feel invisible at work. Black women’s statements were remembered less quickly and less accurately than those of their white female and male peers, according to several studies. Managers should make people aware of this unconscious bias and openly call out instances where good work is being underappreciated or ignored. They should also highlight the contributions of these women through formal and informal communication channels, so the praise is on the record.


Provide honest feedback. It can be difficult to share critical advice- especially when there is an element of difference between the giver and receiver. Bosses should push themselves to deliver feedback in a manner that shows they care deeply about their employees’ personal growth and advancement but are unafraid to call out the areas for improvement. In this book The Culture Code, Dan Coyle recommends this “I’m giving you this feedback because you’re part of this group and we care about you and we think that you can do better at...”


Asses potential, not just competencies. Few executives all have the competencies desired for leadership roles. In these instances, hiring managers often make a bet on who they believe can do well based on their past experiences and qualifications. But this can have the unintended consequence of excluding women of color, who probably haven’t been given the same opportunities as their white and male colleagues. So it’s important to also widen the candidate pool by recruiting and assessing for potential as well. Egon Zehnder has, for example, created a model that provides organizations with a systematic and objective way to evaluate curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination, which it believes are the leading indicators of future competence in leadership roles.


Check for bias. While 42% of companies check for bias in reviews and promotions by gender, only 18% track outcomes for the compounding bias of race and gender. Tracking the performance of women of color and the velocity and rate at which they’re hired and promoted versus their peers is the only way to measure progress in creating a more diverse leadership bench. If for example, the average manager being promoted during a review cycle has driven less business growth, managed smaller teams and been responsible for a less significant P&L than an Asian woman who has also advanced, or one who hasn’t, that is clear grounds for further investigation. Without the data, however, such cases might fly under the radar.


Ask why. Exit interviews are one source of rich anecdotal data on the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion programs. But very few companies have implemented a mandatory exit interview policy for diverse employees that systematically asks why they are leaving. These conversations can provide rare insight into the experiences of women of color and can be fertile ground for new ideas on how to improve the overall employee experience before talent walks out the door. If HR doesn’t take up this cause, managers can do it themselves, informally. There are also confidential third-party software solutions like tEquitable and All Voices designed to help employees anonymously report harassment and bias and offer resources and action plans.


Women of color are strong contenders for future leaders. Companies that want to diversify and create stronger, more successful teams need to ensure that female talent isn’t left behind.