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What it’s Like Being a Black Woman in Corporate America

In light of recent events, the racial disparity in schools and offices across America has started to come under scrutiny. It’s apparent that Black people, especially Black women are at a disadvantage in the corporate environment.

Not only is it more difficult to secure positions in corporate settings, but it is also much more difficult to advance once an entry level position has been secured. Black women often have a much more challenging experience than their White counterparts and typically have to work harder in order to advance in the workplace.

Being a Black woman in corporate America comes with its share of mental stress, microaggressions, prejudice, isolation, etc.

Although race should not be an important factor in the workplace, it is an omnipresent structure that cannot be escaped in any space. Your Blackness will always be on display no matter where you go and, in my experience, just knowing that this is true causes shifts in the behavior of both Black and White people in the workplace.

Certain perceptions come with Blackness such as “suspicious” or “criminal” and this is what forces Black women to adjust their tone, be less direct when communicating, use certain inflections or change their behavior. In the workplace when a Black woman speaks out, they tend to be perceived as “angry”, “hostile” or “bitter”, however when a White woman displays the same type of behavior she is perceived as “brave”, “powerful” or “strong”. I can attest to this based on the behaviors I have observed in my own office. Often times whenever a disagreement arises, the Black person is cast as the aggressor even if that’s not the case. It’s all too common to see any expression of emotion from a Black person be transformed into something negative.

Now, the difference in the perception of a White woman who displays this kind of behavior as compared to a Black woman is drastic. Small differences like these lead to White women advancing to executive levels at a much more rapid pace than Black women. Black women only account for 4.6% of board members in Fortune 500 companies while White women account for 17.9%. Although the numbers for minorities and women have been increasing over the years, Black women are definitely underrepresented in the boardroom. These statistics could be the result of companies who push for gender diversity on higher levels rather than racial diversity. When women are the standard for diversity in a company, it is much more likely for White women to advance, leaving Black women behind. In some cases, Black talent is even regressing. In my office the number of White female managers is comparable to the amount of White male managers, however there are almost no Black or minority managers. It’s up to these companies to reevaluate their metrics and hold themselves accountable for making a change in the recruiting, hiring, development and advancement of diverse talent.

Black women are almost always guaranteed to experience racial prejudice or microaggressions in the workplace. Often times these behaviors unconsciously or unintentionally show a bias towards a member of a marginalized group. Microaggressions come in many forms and they can range from making a comment about a hairstyle to addressing the intellect or capabilities of a Black woman. I have received the “interesting hairstyle” or “is that all your hair?” comments numerous times. These comments tend to fall into the category of pseudo compliments. An amazing work ethic and intellect is a necessity in any workplace, so when compliments about these attributes are directed towards Black people, it implies that they are an exception to the rule. Black women receive an abundance of these comments on a weekly if not daily basis, and after hearing these pseudo compliments for long periods of time they’re more likely to check out mentally.

This phenomenon is often referred to as “quit and stay”. An employee does the bare minimum to meet expectations and flies under the radar. This can stifle creativity, innovation and slow productivity in the workplace. When you start to feel unsupported, unappreciated and disrespected, it can be easy to retreat mentally. Even though Black women experience these types of feelings, they do not always leave the situation because they may feel trapped. Black women are 75% more likely to experience these feeling than their White male colleagues and are 20% more likely to experience these feelings as compared to White women. The solution to this issue may seem simple, why not just leave? The answer is much more complicated – Black women are more likely to have care-giving responsibilities making it difficult to leave the position. They may also fear being categorized as the Black woman who couldn’t perform and perhaps taint the experience of Black women who may join the company after her. Lastly, there may not be a better option. Most companies operate with some sort of racial disparity or prejudice culture, so it is likely that you may leave this situation only to end up in a similar or even worse situation.

Being a Black woman in corporate America comes with its fair share of challenges and the only way to effectively address the large gap between Black women and White women in the workplace is to implement diversity and inclusion programs that really work. While there is not a manual on how to make an impact on racial disparity in the workplace, it is up to companies to take the first step forward. Only 40% of employees think that their companies have an effective diversity and inclusion program, this shows that a change needs to be made.

These changes come as a result of open and honest conversation on every level, from the executive level to the entry level. Having these difficult conversations will ultimately lead to increased retention and engagement from Black talent.

Studies have shown that Black professionals are more likely to leave their corporate jobs to start entrepreneurial ventures as they tend to feel a greater level of trust, respect and inclusion at smaller companies.

Numerous studies have shown that Black professionals perform just as well as or better than their colleagues, yet they do not advance at similar rates. Addressing this issue is not only beneficial to Black people, but also to the company itself. Diversity at every level has been proven to increase productivity, innovation and profits. If large companies can commit to improving their diversity and inclusion programs, all employees as well as the company itself would benefit greatly.

Anastasia Thomas

DeHaas, Deb. Akutagawa, Linda. Spriggs, Skip. “Missing Pieces Report: The 2018 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards.” Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. 5 February 2019. https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2019/02/05/missing-pieces-report-the-2018-board-diversity-census-of-women-and-minorities-on-fortune-500-boards/

George Sonya. “The Gender Gap Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg for Black Women.” Great Place to Work. 03 June 2020. https://www.greatplacetowork.com/resources/blog/diagnosing-quit-and-stay-among-black-women