Supporting women of color in the workplace: addressing issues of intersectionality

At first glance, women have been making steady progress in the C-suite, with the percentage of women increasing from 17 per cent to 21 per cent over the last five years. However, while only one in five C-suite executives is a woman, just one in 25 is a woman of color. At all levels of the business, women of color remain underrepresented, but most notably in these influential leadership positions.

The data is, and has always been, abundantly clear – the root of the problem traces back to a much earlier stage in the talent pipeline, where women of color face additional invisible barriers and are far less likely to be supported in achieving their ambitions. For every 100 men who secure their first promotion, just 72 women are promoted. The disparities widen for women of color, with just 68 Latina and 58 Black women promoted at that same level.

For women of color, the problem is not the glass ceiling – it is that the ceiling is made of concrete and can feel near impossible to shatter. Therefore, it is down to organizations and individuals alike to ensure there are equal opportunities for career progression, and to ensure they can realise their potential to help break down such barriers.

Understand others’ experiences

The collective experiences of women of color differ vastly to those of white women, and within the term ‘women of color’ itself, there is a huge amount of diversity. Where gender, race and ethnicity intersect, there are unique challenges, difficult conversations to be had, and an overall lack of understanding between different demographics.

Employers must investigate the specific challenges and barriers faced by women of color, track their organizations’ gender and ethnicity data and conduct focus groups or listening sessions to better understand their lived experiences. Once issues have been identified, inclusive policies should be laid out to address them – keeping in mind that a policy broadly focused on gender parity or race, for example, will be unsuccessful if it does not account for the intersection between different demographics. Too often, a strategy designed to advance women’s representation will have been laid out without anyone questioning which women are most likely to benefit.

Draw on the data

Organisations should set diversity targets to hold themselves to account and ensure increasing representation is not only possible, but also a priority. In doing so, this will support their ability to create a talent pipeline of candidates that reflect the true diversity of the community and customers they serve. By then measuring and tracking data in regards to hiring and retention, businesses are able to uncover stumbling blocks for women of color.

Without an inclusive environment in which a diverse workforce is nurtured, diverse talent simply enters the business but lacks the necessary support to thrive. Employers must actively work towards removing obstacles for minority employees, recognizing that with change – such as diversification – existing policies will quickly become outdated, leading them to be ineffective in supporting the diversity within their workforce at that given time.

Become a mentor or an ally

Research indicates that Black women in particular are more ambitious and more likely to say that they want to advance in their companies than their white women counterparts, with 64 per cent of Black women stating that their goal is to make it to the very top of their profession. However, they are far less likely to find mentors who will aid their climb up the corporate ladder.

It is vital for mentors, leaders and sponsors within an organization to reflect and consider how their active choices can help support diverse groups in the workplace. For instance, those in positions of influence may default to mentoring someone with similar lived experiences to them, known as affinity bias, which can lead to diverse employees missing out on mentoring opportunities. Equally, the lack of diverse mentors at senior levels of businesses can impact progression for mentees who want someone that they feel  comfortable discussing uncomfortable realities.

Mentors, whether formal or informal, can help women of color to champion their abilities, build their self-esteem and identity pathways for progression, regardless of what stage of their career they’re at. When a mentee can see their experiences mirrored in their mentor’s own, their self-confidence rises – even more so when the two work for the same organization. Internally, mentoring programmes are also an excellent way of nurturing diverse talent and strengthening the company’s pipeline of future leaders. INvolve’s global cross-industry global program, is a fantastic way for employers to support the career development of their high potential diverse talent by pairing them with a mentor that can guide their career and leverage their networks to drive career progression.

Showcase role models

It’s critical that women of color are visible at all levels of a business, providing inspiration, guidance and reassurance that diverse talent is championed and supported in the workplace. Role models, particularly those in senior leadership positions, have the ability to amplify the voices of other women, elevating concerns and challenging perspectives in the boardroom.

At Audeliss we specialise in placing global diverse talent in the C-suite and boardrooms across industries and actively level the playing field for diverse individuals. In creating senior leadership teams that are representative of the thriving societies that these businesses function within, we are able to increase representation and give employees across the business role models that they can aspire to be like.

However, everyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity, has an opportunity (and a responsibility) to build bridges for communication with women from ethnic minority backgrounds, advocating for more visibility in meetings, training sessions and panel events, where the attention can – and should – be turned to lesser heard voices.

We must shed light on the combined impact of racism and misogyny in our workplaces and ensure our workforces and our leadership teams accurately reflect the diversity within society. Employers must evaluate their own unconscious biases, diversify their candidate slates and talent pipelines, and introduce inclusive policies, while also recognizing the specific challenges that arise where minority groups intersect.