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Advancing Women of Color: Burden or Opportunity?

Retaining women of color is not that hard when you know how. Here are 7 tips.

Today I am honored to have Dr. Kristin Powell as my guest blogger. She is a psychologist, coach, and consultant who has served in various management and leadership roles for over 12 years in the federal government. Being one of the only African-American women in her work settings in a leadership position has given her a unique perspective on confronting the workplace challenges facing women of color.

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From the start, I had an advantage that many women who look like me do not have. I was raised around women and men of color who were well educated, successful, and respected in their communities. They taught me important life lessons, such as the value of self-identity, pride, and striving for excellence. Although I was very insulated within my community of origin, I also learned to navigate and thrive in diverse settings, which has benefitted my career and my pursuit of roles that have allowed me to make an impact.

There is no simple answer to the question, “Why don’t more women, especially women of color, strive for or obtain leadership positions?” Despite the advantages of my background and experiences, there have been countless times where I have still felt unsupported, invisible, and uncomfortable during my pursuit to develop and advance my career. It is hard to strive for something when you doubt your “belonging” and wonder if you are being unfairly treated or overlooked.

My experiences are not that different from the experiences of other women of color. It is well documented that under-represented women of color face a “double burden” of discrimination and stereotypes.

The first burden is the well-documented gender-based discrimination: For example, in a 2017 survey of 786 male and female senior executives, almost half thought that continued bias against women as chief executives was the primary reason that more women did not make it to the top of their companies, and one-third thought women in their firms were not given sufficient opportunities to become leaders.

The second burden is the racial discrimination on top of this gender-based discrimination. Women of color face more obstacles and a steeper path to leadership compared to White women, from receiving less support from managers to getting promoted more slowly. For example, a 2017 Lean-In/McKinsey & Company study based on employee pipeline data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, found that on average, women continue to be hired and promoted at lower rates than men, and at senior levels, the gap in promotions is much larger for women of color. In fact, the newest 2018 McKinsey report suggests that progress isn’t just slow-it’s stalled: only one in five senior leaders is a woman and just one in twenty-five is a woman of color.

As I continued to reflect more on my background and experiences, I realized that the majority of the professional women of color that I know are very capable of leadership, whether it be in their communities, churches, or their professions. However, they were not always given the titles (CEO, president, director etc.) that we typically associate with leadership. They had the skills but may have been overlooked, quietly doing the work of a leader without the recognition of being the head.

Why should leaders and organization heads care about increasing diverse leadership representation, and what do we know that helps?

Diversity strengthens organizational outcomes and lack of diversity is costly for companies, especially for those who have struggled with gender and racial discrimination issues. Diversity is associated with greater creativity, innovations, and greater profitability. When a company has a diverse set of experiences, they are more likely to meet the diverse needs of customers and stakeholders.

A 2015 survey of college-educated women — including 1370 women of color — conducted by the Working Mother Research Institute found that 74% of black women perceived racial stereotypes occurring in the workplace. Many also reported not having or receiving sufficient resources and support to excel, leading to work dissatisfaction and problems with retention of these talented employees.

Two key factors have been consistently selected by women of color that influence intent to stay within a company: a sense of belonging and satisfaction with ability to achieve long-term career goals. Taking action to retain women of color by focusing on these key areas should be an essential component of any companies’ business plan.

There is evidence that well-developed mentoring programs significantly improve leadership diversity within companies. For example, one study found that a formal mentoring program increased minority representation in management by 9-24%.

Minorities at early, emerging, and middle-management levels would especially benefit from additional mentorship and support, and this is a major missed opportunity by most companies. Due to a variety of factors, there is currently a widespread concern that some male leaders may feel hesitant to mentor women or give women honest feedback on performance (a necessity for them to ascend). This may be even more prominent for minorities who may have less access to strong mentoring relationships that can help them advance.

While I have had the benefit of being mentored at times, there have been other times when there was no clear mentor in sight. I even wonder if I might have missed an opportunity to be mentored by someone who could have positively influenced my career along the way (particularly in the earlier stages). While mentoring is something that I could have sought more consistently throughout my career, I believe that more of a focus could have been placed on mentoring by higher leadership or made more clearly available, as well.

So how can employers, supervisors, and heads of organizations help retain and advance women of color?

  1. Demonstrate a culture in which leadership comes in different shapes, sizes, and hues. Make sure women of color in a company can see themselves as leaders and that the definitions of leadership and the paths to leadership are broad and available to all.
  2. Offer multiple opportunities for training. Consider multiple “on-ramps” to leadership, such as formal leadership training or short-term stretch experiences. These provide new training experiences for high potential rising leaders with minimal previous exposure to formal leadership roles.
  3. Recognize that experiences and titles matter. Review the organizational chart. Are there any discrepancies between functions and job titles among employees? Are some of the same people routinely being tapped for new opportunities to expand their leadership and visibility, despite there being multiple qualified candidates for these opportunities?
  4. Increase awareness of the power of feedback (Words matter too). Men and women in powerful positions do not always realize that some words can be affirming, while others quite damaging, in performance ratings. A mentee of color may enter mentoring and supervisory relationships with caution if she suspects that she is or has been previously viewed through the lens of a stereotype, rather than judged on her own merits. In order to help her trust the intention without dismissing the potentially useful feedback, a culture of mutual respect and trust must first be established. For example, there are documented benefits to providing feedback that is honest, but offered in a manner that provides assurance on confidence in the mentee’s high potential and ability to reach high standards.
  5. Evaluate whether there may be systematic biases requiring a broad-based intervention. Research has shown that sometimes there are systematic implicit biases and assumptions that impact decision making and hiring and not be fully recognized immediately by a company. These biases communicate negative and derogatory messages to people of color. Externally, this can reduce the number of talented, qualified applicants in the hiring pool and create a poor image for the company. Internally, this reduces the benefits reaped from having a more diverse employee pool and deter talented, qualified employees from striving towards new opportunities, or being retained by the company. It can also affect employee morale downstream.
  6. Create a well-developed formal mentorship program that incorporates a path for obtaining sponsorship. Formalizing mentoring experiences and creating a culture of mentoring is a key tool to helping women and minorities accelerate their careers. However, without sponsorship (a relationship in which the mentee goes beyond giving feedback and uses his or her influence to advocate for the mentee), many women are less likely to be promoted to top roles. Many leaders may benefit from assistance in determining the appropriate and effective use of mentoring and/or sponsorship that is consistent with their organizational culture and values.
  7. Pursue executive leadership training or coaching opportunities that focus on diversity and inclusion. It is hard for most leaders to stay on the forefront of gender and diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace and many have not had access to opportunities for formal training on how to lead diverse groups or people. Training in inclusive leadership development and execution of solutions to discrimination and unconscious bias can help leaders learn effective ways to lead, retain, and empower diverse groups of employees.