By Rohini Anand, PhD.
During this Women’s History Month, I reflect on my career as a woman of color and the experiences of women of color in the workplace. I have had the privilege of being sponsored and mentored. My sponsor played a key role in my career success. In this case he happened to be a white male. He made me visible to the organization and positioned me for success. My mentors, a white woman and a Black woman, encouraged me to believe in myself. Not all women of color have mentors or sponsors who can help them navigate their careers, especially within their organizations.
My regret is that I did not seek out mentors and sponsors earlier in my career. Today I encourage young professional women to be intentional in seeking out mentors and sponsors. Recognizing the important role of mentors, as I pay it forward, I mentor several young professional women of color. Some want to enter the diversity, equity and inclusion field or aspire to become Chief Diversity Officers. Others want to build their business. And then there is one who wanted my guidance as she wrote her first novel.
From each of my mentors, I have learned a tremendous amount as I encouraged them to ask for what they want and to continue to pay it forward.
This is advice from one of my mentees: “Mentoring is most effective when there is complete trust between mentor and mentee. And to be honest, a commitment to invest in the growth of the mentee. This is what I experienced. As a result, I built my confidence while increasing my knowledge on various topics. The honest confidence helped me achieve more than what I expected of myself. I wish that every young professional like me could have access to a mentor who can simply make a success of them!”
Women of color have unique experiences in the work place and based on their race, don’t necessarily share the same experiences with white women or even other women of color. While my gender identity is important, my identity as an Asian American equally defines my experiences. And mentorship and sponsorship are just some ways to advance female talent, including women of color
On this Women’s History Month, we recognize the achievements of ALL women AND I want to focus on the experiences of women of color in the workplace.
Women of color in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women of color make up 39% of the nation’s female population and 20% of the entire US population. (US Census Bureau. Quick Facts United States. July 2019). And women of color will be the majority of all women in the US by 2060 (US Census Bureau 2020).
Yet, they are vastly underrepresented in corporate leadership, the political arena and in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM).
Despite studies by Catalyst, McKinsey and others suggesting that the inclusion of more women and people of color leaders will enhance corporate performance, we have seen limited gains.
In March 2021, the number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies stands at 8.4% and just 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women of color. This is unacceptable! Among them, there are just two Black female CEOs, Roz Brewer, who heads up Walgreens) and Thasunda Brown Duckett, appointed as CEO for TIAA.
According to the World Economic Forum, the proportion of women in senior executive roles globally has been stuck at 24% for more than a decade. In the US, one in five C-Suite leaders are women; one in 25 C-Suite leaders are women of color. (McKinsey/Lean In).
I think it’s time that we asked ourselves: Why? Why is this gap not closing? We know it’s not because of a lack of available talent. Systemic barriers hold back women of color from leaning into their authentic identities and exercising their unique skill sets.
Just 10% of new board members in in the S&P 500 in 2019 were women of color (2019 Spencer Stuart US Board Index). The percentage of 2018 Fortune 500 board seats occupied by African American women was 3%; Asian Pacific Islanders, 1.3%; and Hispanic women, 0.8%. (Catalyst 2018 Board Diversity Census of Women.)
According to the Women Business Collaborative, the 2020 Women on Boards 2019 Gender Diversity Index finds the average number of corporate board seats held by women in the Russell 3000 stands at 20.4% as of November 2019 and that 41% of Russell 3000 companies have one or no women on their boards. The good news is that this number is improving with 40% of all recent board appointments going to women in early 2021.
Advancement of diverse leadership, especially women of color on Boards in public and private companies, is critical. This requires deliberate effort from both public and private organizations to provide the necessary leadership opportunities for women - to build the pipeline of women of color in leadership
And yet, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report says that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted.
Women tend to find less opportunities to participate in leadership development initiatives and seldom benefit from mentors and sponsors and are overlooked as high potential talent.
While there has been an increase in entry level and middle management women, senior executives and C-suite women are leaving companies at a much faster rate than their male peers. (Advancing all women: How women of color experience the workplace. Network of Executive Women). And as a result of Covid-19 and the pressures of work, home schooling and lack of child care, more women are exiting the workplace.
When we look at some industries, the picture is even more bleak. Women of color, in particular, are least represented in the technology industry. In 2019, only 22% of tech jobs were held by women, according to Forbes. Women are highly underrepresented in software engineering (14% of total workforce) and in computer science-related jobs (25% of total workforce). A 2020 study from Built In found that just 3% of computing-related jobs were held by Black women, 6% by Asian women and 2% by Hispanic women.
And, the numbers of women exiting their positions, finding it difficult to survive in a masculine culture, is alarming. In 2015, the quit rate of women in technology was almost twice as high as that of men: 53% for women vs 31% for men (Women Business Collaborative)
“We must create more opportunities for women, especially women of color, as it’s well-documented that diverse companies perform.”- Rohini Anand, Deborah Munzter; and Jennifer Martineau, Chairs- Women Business Collaborative.
Despite significant economic contributions, women of color lack parity
Women of color have a staggering $1 trillion in buying power. They are launching businesses at a 4 times higher rate compared to that of all women-owned businesses. (Infographic: The Women’s and Multicultural Market Opportunity – Prudential.com).
In 2019, they started an average of 1,817 new businesses per day in the U.S. Between 2018 and 2019, women of color were starting businesses at a remarkable 4.5 times the rate of all businesses! The highest rate of growth between 2014 and 2019 came from Black women-owned businesses. They started 42% of net new women-owned businesses, which is three times their share of the female population (14%). (2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express)
But despite their grit, ambition and entrepreneurial ability, they are not being given larger incentives to lead, to grow their businesses and to advance.
Women of color are ambitious - 30% aspire to an executive position and 50% hope to be an executive in their career. (Multicultural Women at Work: The Working Mother Report 2015). If ambition, drive and potential are reason enough, clearly advancing and retaining women of color is the right thing to do and a business imperative for organizations!
Why do women of color find it difficult to advance?
Women of color face a host of issues from racism to sexual harassment and even assault at workplaces which varies depending on their positional power ranging from low wage workers to leadership roles.
Some common, yet serious impediments that stymie career progression for women of color are:
Black women in particular are subjected to gender-driven micro-aggressions and to racial stereotyping from both men and women (The micro-aggressions towards Black women you might be complicit in at work. Forbes. June 19, 2020). There is abundant data that tells us that women of color working in low wage jobs are subject to slights, insults and mockery based on gender and race on a daily basis but this trauma, unfortunately, goes unnoticed as they have few options for recourse.
Lack of sponsorship
Women of color receive less sponsorship, which is critical to making them visible to the organization. Ironically, they often report to supervisors who fail to promote their work contributions to others. These obstacles leave women of color out of the "informal networks that propel most high-potentials forward in their careers." (Women in the Workplace 2020- McKinsey/Lean in).
Lack of Mentorship
Mentorship is critical to growing your career. One in five women never had access to a mentor, with over half reporting that they were never able to find someone appropriate. (LinkedIn survey (2011) of nearly 1,000 women in the US). Women of color see few role models like themselves who they can seek out as mentors and as a result are most likely to be excluded from informal networks as compared to white women ((Multicultural women at work: The Working Mother Report- 2015).
Definition of Executive Presence
Many organizations define and promote “executive presence” as confining to white male standards which puts women of color at a disadvantage. (Black women ready to lead. Center for Talent Innovation)
A majority of women of color experience an “Emotional Tax” in US workplaces. This has detrimental effects on their overall health, well-being and ability to thrive. Add workplace bias and societal discrimination puts women of color in a constant state of being “on guard” because of their gender, race and/or ethnicity. (Day to Day experiences of emotional tax among women and men of color in the workplace. Catalyst. Feb. 2018)
So how do women of color experience the workplace?
Sense of belonging
Only six in 10 women of color report feeling a sense of belonging compared to seven in 10 white women and men (Advancing all women: How women of color experience the workplace)
Hurdles in achieving long-term career goals
Women of color have reported less satisfaction than white women with their ability to achieve long-term career goals. ((Advancing all women: How women of color experience the workplace)
What companies can do
Walk the talk- create a sense of belonging
Companies should invest in building inclusive cultures where every employee is valued for their uniqueness and feels a sense of belonging. When women of color can bring their whole selves to work and don’t feel like they have to “cover” they are more engaged and productive.
Employee resource groups (ERG)
One way to foster a sense of uniqueness and belonging is through employee resource groups. Make sure that there is space for women of color in your women’s ERG as the experiences of women of color differ from those of white women.
Disaggregate your data
In order to create a level playing field and to advance women of color, make sure that you disaggregate your data to analyze the progression of women of color. The data should inform where the blockages are in the talent pipeline and what you need to do to remove those blockages to advance women of color
Ensure that your systems are unbiased
Assess all internal processes and systems and eliminate bias. This includes the entire life cycle: recruiting, development, engagement, retention, and succession planning. Assessing talent for their skills and competencies and creating a level playing field for all talent will allow organizations to advance women of color.
Provide development opportunities
Be intentional about ensuring that women of color are included in leadership development, have high visibility assignments and are mentored and sponsored. Mentoring is just as effective when done virtually as well. In succession planning discussion, make sure that you include women of color. Provide career guidance to women of color. The data suggests that profit and loss (P&L) responsibility is critical to advancement of talent. Ensure that women of color are well represented in P&L roles.
Build management competencies to lead a multicultural workforce
Dissatisfaction with managers is the primary reason that employees leave companies. Frequently this is a result of managers being uncomfortable providing career guidance to women of color or providing them developmental feedback. Ensure that you provide management with the skills to effectively engage and lead a multicultural workforce.
Hold teams accountable
If advancing women of color is a strategic focus for the organization, managers must be held accountable. This can be done through the performance management process, for example.
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Women of color business ownership (Amex)
Multicultural women at work: The working mother report.