For my Black sisters

By Rohini Anand, PhD.

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman

As I reflect on this Black History Month, I think of my Black sisters. Today we have an African American and Indian American Vice President in the White House. What an amazing role model for Black and Brown girls and women everywhere! And Rosalind Brewer was named CEO of Walgreens, the only Fortune 500 company led by an African American woman. A great start!

We saw the critical role that powerful Black women played in turning out the African American vote during the 2020 U.S. elections. From Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Errin Haines, Keisha Lance Bottoms to Muriel Bowser – these amazing women have worked tirelessly to ensure that the voices of African Americans and other historically marginalized people are heard.

I am delighted at the influence and power of these extraordinary Black women. But there is much work to be done when it comes to the representation and advancement of Black women in the US workplace. And despite these great achievements, systemic racism impacts the lives of Black people the world over.

The challenge

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women of color make up 39% of the nation’s female population and 20% of the entire U.S. population. And significantly, according to the global non-profit, Catalyst, women of color will be the majority of all women in the United States by 2060. It is therefore shocking that less than 2% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women of color. (Women of color in the United States: Quick Take. Catalyst. 2/1/2021) And, according to the World Economic Forum, women of color make up just 4% of the C-suite. (10% are men of color). When we consider the broader ecosystem there are just 4 Black women serving as active judges on the federal appeals court in the U.S.! (Washington Post 2/7/2021).

Equal pay is fundamental to workplace equality. And yet in 2020, women earned $0.81 for every dollar earned by men when the median salary for all men and women was considered. This was a 2% improvement from 2019 and a 7% improvement from 2015 (Payscale Gender Pay Gap Report for 2020). However, women of color have a higher gender pay gap. Black women earn $.075 for every dollar a white man earns. As women move up the corporate ladder, the gender pay gap widens and the largest controlled pay gap is for Black women, with Black female executives earning $0.62 for every dollar a white male executive earns. (Payscale Gender Pay Gap Report for 2020).

Black women make 38 percent less than White men and 21 percent less than White women. The pay gap starts at entry-level, persisting and increasing throughout women’s careers. “For Black women, a gap of 16 percent grows to 32 percent by mid-career and 39 percent in the later years.” (Bentley University Intersectionality in the Workplace: Broadening the Lens of Inclusion 2019).

And here is the sad thing! Half of all Americans (I mean one in 2!) don’t know about the wage disparity between Black and White women! Nearly half of White men think that issues hindering Black women’s progression has been eliminated, according to a survey by Lean In, the National Urban League and Survey Monkey in 2019.

The news is slightly better when we look at the percentage of board seats occupied by women of color. In November 2020, one hundred and six women were appointed to the board of a public company compared to one hundred and seventy-five male appointments, according to the Women’s Business Collaborative. Of these, 13 were women of color. Overall, in 2020, 12.5% of new director appointments were people of color with 7.1% African American and 3.4% Black women.

Add to the challenges the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black women. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the lives of Black women who are represented in front line jobs in education, hospitality and retail that have seen major job losses. These sectors seldom offer sick leave or work from home options leaving them exposed to the virus. Due to huge health disparities, Black women are three times more likely than women in general to lose a loved one to COVID-19.

The impact? The unemployment rate for Black women is 8.4%compared to 5.7% for White women. A McKinsey study says that Black women were disproportionately impacted by the difficult events of 2020. They were more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one was one of their biggest challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. The incidents of racial violence across the U.S. also had a heavy emotional toll (McKinsey: Women in the workplace 2020).

“Since the start of Covid-19, Black women are more likely than other employees to think about leaving the workforce because of concerns over their health and safety,” the report said

Black women face workplace barriers

Black women encounter significant challenges in advancing in the workplace. Six years of McKinsey’s research on this topic shows that Black women face major barriers to career advancement, receive less encouragement and guidance from managers and face real discrimination. They experience more micro-aggressions, lack allies at work and find it hard to bring their whole selves to work. According to the McKinsey report (Women in the workplace 2020), Black women were almost twice as likely as women overall to say that they can’t bring their whole selves to work and more than 1.5 times as likely to say they don’t have strong allies.

According to Catalyst, Black women perceive significantly higher levels of exclusion in the work environment than do Asian women and Latinas. They also face greater negative racial stereotyping. (Connections that Count: The Informal Networks of Women of Color in the United States. Catalyst.)

All this combined with a lack of access to influential professional networks and to high-visibility assignments as well as a lack of role models, mentors and sponsors prevent the advancement of Black women in the workplace. According to the McKinsey-Lean In Study, white men report having access to senior leaders at three times the rate and white women at twice the rate of Black women. 31% of white men had a sponsor or mentor during their career, compared to 27% of white women and 19% of Black women. (McKinsey-Lean In Study 2019)

"You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them." - Maya Angelou

What Black women want from work

But do you know what?

Black women are ready to lead!

According to a 2014 report by the Center for Talent Innovation on women and ambition, women seek 5 things. “At the prime of their working lives, women want to be able to flourish; to excel; to reach for meaning and purpose; to empower others and be empowered; and to earn well.” (Black women ready to lead. The Center for Talent Innovation)

Black women want these just as fervently as white women. “They are 50% more likely than white women to say this is important in their careers.” Black women are 2.8 times as likely as white women to aspire to a top position with a prestigious title and are more likely than white women to be confident they can succeed in a position of power. And Black women are more likely than white women to have clear long-term goals.

However, Black women are also more likely than white women to report feeling stalled (44% vs 30%). They are also more likely than white women to report feeling their talents aren’t recognized by their superiors (26% vs 17%) and their leadership experience often goes unrecognized.

“Black women’s leadership aspirations have not been part of the current dialogue on women, work and ambition.” ( Black women ready to lead. The Center for Talent Innovation report). And we have to