This op-ed is the second in a series by LeanIn.Org on the state of women in the workplace.
Today is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. That means Black women had to work all of 2019 and this far into 2020 to earn what white men earned last year alone—four months longer than white women had to work to accomplish the same goal. Over the course of a Black woman’s career, the pay gap accounts for almost $1 million in lost income.
That’s a major injustice. It’s also part of a much bigger problem.
For five years, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company have run Women in the Workplace, the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. Year after year, the data tell the same story: the workplace is worse for women than for men, worse for women of color than white women, and for Black women in particular, in many ways, it’s worst of all.
At this moment when our national conversation has finally turned to the systemic injustices Black people face, it’s critical that we take a hard look at what’s happening in the workplace. For too many Black women, work is yet another area where they encounter inequality and discrimination.
To understand the depths of this problem, consider the findings from last year’s Women in the Workplace study. Black women are underrepresented at every level of corporate America. The gap is largest at the top: only 1% of C-suite leaders are Black women. But the problem really begins to show itself at the first step up from entry-level job to manager—what we call the “broken rung” on the corporate ladder. For every 100 entry-level men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women get the same recognition.
Whether you rise at work often depends on who champions you. For many Black women, it feels like no one does. Black women are less likely to have managers advocate for them. They receive less sponsorship (the informal support senior employees give promising junior employees). And 59% of Black women say that they have never—not once—had an informal interaction with a senior leader at their company.
All this contributes to a workplace where Black women regularly deal with disrespect and microaggressions. They’re more than twice as likely as men to be mistaken for someone at a much lower level. They’re more likely than other employees to hear people express surprise at their language skills or other abilities. And for the half of Black women who are the only or one of the only women of color on their teams, being at work means feeling closely watched and on guard.
Finally, there’s allyship. More than 80% of white employees consider themselves allies to people of color at work, according to new data from Lean In and SurveyMonkey. But only 45% of Black women say that they have strong allies at work. And fewer than 40% of white employees say they have ever spoken out against racism at work.
This data about Black women’s experiences at work should ring alarm bells in every C-suite; we’ve presented it in a new report: The State of Black Women in Corporate America. Companies must move swiftly to change things for the better. What better day to take action than Black Women’s Equal Pay Day?
Business leaders should commit publicly to doing more to advance Black women. Then they must embrace an intersectional approach. The challenges Black women face are rooted in a combination of sexism and racism, so any attempt to support them must take both into account. For example, companies should track representation by gender and race combined and set hiring and promotion targets for women of color and Black women specifically. Right now, only 7% of companies set hiring and promotion targets. That leaves many Black women and other women of color at least somewhat invisible, which is exactly the problem companies should be solving. And that intersectional approach should be applied across the board: to compensation, to access to mentorship and sponsorship, and to other factors that affect employees’ success and satisfaction.
Companies must also work on creating a culture in which Black women are meaningfully included and welcome. Educating employees about sexism and racism—and empowering them to speak up when they see them—is key. But rooting out bad behavior isn’t enough. Companies must proactively cultivate good behavior—for example, by requiring allyship training that teaches white employees how to advocate for colleagues of color.
For years, Lean In has urged employers to make their workplaces equal for women. We know from our data that the only effective and lasting way to do that is by centering the women who are most marginalized. If employers want to do better by women, they must do better by Black women.
Raena Saddler is VP of people and managing director of LeanIn.Org. Rachel Thomas is co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org. Their new report is the State of Black Women in Corporate America.
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