Black women make up 7.4% of the U.S. population yet hold only 1.4% of C-suite positions and 1.7% of vice president roles in the nation, according to the LeanIn report “The State of Black Women in Corporate America.” On the other hand, white men, who make up 35% of the U.S. population, hold 68% of C-suite positions and 57% of vice president roles in the nation, the report found.
Where’s the disconnect?
Women have long faced challenges in corporate America, from the pay gap to balancing work and motherhood. However, professional women of color often have a “tougher hill to climb than women, period,” says Shelley Willingham, vice president of The Diversity Movement, a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training provider. Being a woman of color is a barrier organizations need to be mindful of, she says. For example, Black women are less likely to receive the professional development and support they need to advance. As a result, many professional Black women are left to fend for themselves without the skills, knowledge, support and opportunities afforded to others.
Fortunately, learning and development (L&D) can enable Black women with the tools they need to succeed in their roles. Here are three ways L&D can support and develop Black women in the workplace, driving equity and inclusion and better business outcomes as a result.
1. Offer Unconscious Bias Training
Unconscious bias training is a pillar of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. It starts with training hiring managers on how bias shows up in the recruiting process, says Dr. Theresa Horne, CPTM, CSM, SHRM-CSP, chief consulting officer for Dynamic Training Partners, LLC.
There are many ways hiring and recruitment efforts can become biased, from favoring certain colleges and universities to using gendered language in job descriptions. Often, organizations don’t intent to be exclusionary; “it’s just the way it’s been done for so long,” Willingham says.
Training professionals should encourage hiring managers to continuously assess their hiring and recruitment processes from a DEI lens to stop bias in its tracks. Training should address best practices for fair recruiting and hiring, such as using inclusive language in job ads, establishing objective and clear selection criteria, widening the talent pool and using a standard set of interview questions.
Training hiring managers on equitable hiring and recruitment practices is essential, but unconscious bias and DEI training shouldn’t stop there. Horne says training should also address “performance bias” or “fairness in evaluating people performance and how we give feedback.” Fair and objective performance evaluations follow a set criteria and format and are metrics-based, she says.
Part of performance bias training is addressing common unconscious biases that can hold Black women back. Marie Deveaux, founder and principal of High Tides Consulting and an Udemy course instructor, says there’s “many negative tropes around how Black women show up” that may impact the feedback they receive. For example, Deveaux says many of the Black women she’s mentored and coached have received feedback that they are “too much,” “too aggressive” or “too loud.”
Sertrice Grice, business development and partnerships chair at Blacks in I/O (industrial/organizational) Psychology, says the “angry Black woman” stereotype, combined with the fact Black employees often have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to go just as far, can be exhausting. Too often, “Black women find themselves expelling a great deal of mental and emotional energy to appear as competent, confident performers while simultaneously avoiding coming off as too assertive or angry.”
Unconscious bias training can help combat stereotypes so that Black women can focus on what matters most at work: their job.
2. Implement a Mentorship Program Rooted in Allyship
Professional success is often tied to access to mentors and sponsors, Deveaux says. But even with access to mentors, Black women are “at the intersection of gender and race,” making it difficult to find a mentor who understands their unique challenges. Often, when looking for a mentor, “people want to partner with someone who looks like them,” Grice explains. “The bonus of being mentored by someone who has a similar life experience, who can relate to the sexism and racism that they’ve likely come across … it’s invaluable.”
Here is the difficulty: With Black women already underrepresented in leadership positions, there will likely be more Black women looking for a mentor than there are looking for a mentee.
Allyship training can give male and/or non-Black leaders the tools they need to mentor and advocate for Black women in the workplace. In addition to identifying and overcoming unconscious biases, allyship training should outline ways to support Black women’s professional development. Suggesting training courses and programs to bridge skills gaps and asking mentees to collaborate on visible and important projects can “help get them to the next level,” Horne says.
“Ally” is an action word, Deveaux says, and allyship means actively building authentic relationships and connections with Black women at work, listening to understand their challenges and asking how you can help, and speaking up when you see someone experience injustice or discrimination on the job — even if it’s uncomfortable.
Becoming a mentor and an ally, Horne says, is one of the most impactful ways to support and develop Black women in the workplace. And while “you don’t have to teach someone how to help someone,” there are many leaders who want to help but don’t have the vehicle with which to do so, she explains. Offering to mentor a Black woman in a lower position than you, whom you may have never even talked to before, can feel inauthentic. Formal mentorship programs can help allies in executive positions put their values into action.
3. Create a Culture of Belonging
“The State of Black Women in Corporate America” found that 54% of Black women are “Onlys,” meaning that they are only Black person or one of the only Black people in the room at work. Further, “Black women who are Onlys often report feeling closely watched, on guard, and under increased pressure to perform,” the report found.
Even the most comprehensive DEI training efforts will fail without an underlying culture of belonging. As Horne puts it, “You can bring people in the door, but if you haven’t changed your culture to make it a place where [Black women] feel like they belong and are included, they’ll leave in the first three years.”
Employee resource groups (ERGs) offer people from marginalized groups and/or people with common interests and backgrounds a space to collaborate and support each another. “An ERG can go a long way in terms of helping employees feel accepted and included in their company culture,” a Zenefits article reports. To drive lasting impact, “all ERGs, in some way or another, should tie back into your company’s mission or purpose in order to move your business closer to its goals.”
DEI often “gets stuck” in the human resources (HR) and/or L&D functions, Willingham says. But advancing DEI isn’t solely an HR or L&D issue. It’s a human issue that “should be attached to every line of business.” DEI should be part of an organization’s DNA.
DEI has gained momentum amid heightened awareness of systemic racism and injustice, but Willingham says, “We can’t take our foot off the gas.” Companies have to be deliberate about their commitment to advancing Black women — and other employees from marginalized groups — into leadership roles now and in the future. Only then will equitable work for all become a reality.