Why it's time to elevate women of color in the workplace
An interview with LeanIn.Org
October 19, 2021
Women of color have to deal with more challenges and feel less supported than their white peers. Even after a year of increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, women of color continue to face significant bias and discrimination at work. They are significantly less likely than white women and men to say they have equal opportunity to advance at their companies; they are also less likely to feel that promotions are based on fair and objective criteria. More than one in six women of color report that their race has played a role in them missing out on a raise, promotion, or other chances to get ahead.
These are the findings of the 2021 Women in the Workplace study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey. Although the percentage of white employees who identify as allies to women of color has increased, that is not similarly reflected in the percentage of employees who take allyship actions, according to LeanIn.Org’s research.
Here are other stark facts from the study:
- Women of color experience micro-aggressive behavior at work—such as being interrupted, or having their judgment questioned—more so than women in general.
- Women of color are much more likely to face disrespectful behaviors that reinforce harmful stereotypes.
- Women who are regularly on the receiving end of micro aggressive behaviors are twice as likely to be burned out.
Although more than three-quarters of white employees consider themselves allies to women of color, far fewer are taking actions, like speaking out against discrimination or actively advocating for opportunities for women of color.
Nearly one-third of women of color feel their company has substantially followed through on commitments to racial equity.
Celebrate the resilience of women of color
As a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion in business, these findings are incredibly heartbreaking to me. We have seen some progress—business leaders are saying they’re listening and many are taking action—but this data shows that there is still so much work to be done. We need to support and elevate women of color now. And we should celebrate women of color—like Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments, and Tiffany R. Warren, executive vice president, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Sony Music Group—who have risen through the ranks with business acumen, courage, grit, and resilience. There is a new generation of young women of color watching and learning.
In my role of leading DEI efforts at Momentive, I wanted to find out more about this research and other studies about women of color in the workplace. So I reached out to Archana Gilravi, vice president of partnerships at LeanIn.Org, who has experience in leadership positions at a number of high-profile tech and investment companies, including Google. I wanted to dig into more about how business leaders can address this disconnect and other issues concerning women of color in the workplace. I’m sharing an edited Q&A of my conversation with Archana with the hope that we as business leaders can move into 2022 with renewed commitment to give all women employees a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment in which to grow.
Antoine: Archana, as a successful leader, what do you want to see change or improve that will help elevate women of color's day-to-day experiences in the workplace? What can colleagues do to be seen as and deliver results as an ally for women of color?
Archana: Simply put, we need colleagues who identify as allies to take action. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of good intentions—more than three quarters of white employees think of themselves as allies to women of color in their workplaces. But we’re not seeing nearly enough follow-through—less than 40% of white employees say they speak out when they see discrimination against women of color.
When we look at allyship actions that require more proactive, sustained investment, the gap between intent and action gets even bigger. Only about 20% of white employees say they regularly advocate for new opportunities for women of color, and only 10% mentor or sponsor one or more women of color. This is especially troubling given that women of color say advocacy, mentorship, and sponsorship are among the allyship actions that are most meaningful to them; these actions can make a huge difference in whether a woman of color is able to get recognized and advance in her career. I experienced this firsthand when I worked at Google, where I had a white male sponsor who significantly impacted the shape and trajectory of my career.
“The call to action for companies is simple: they need to formally recognize and reward employees who are going above and beyond to drive progress on DEI. Failing to do so hurts women, who are investing valuable time and energy in this work.”
Vice president of partnerships, LeanIn.Org
Ongoing allyship training equips employees to be better allies
Antoine: The results from your seventh annual Women in the Workplace study found that despite a year of increased focus on DEI and racial equity, the day-to-day experiences of women of color are not improving. This disconnect is truly disappointing. Why do you think the day-to-day experiences of women of color aren’t improving compared to their white counterparts?
Archana: Antoine—I couldn't agree more—the disconnect is disheartening.
Companies have become more aware of the challenges women of color are facing, and many leaders are speaking publicly about the need for change. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean companies are putting in the deep, sustained effort that’s needed to make their workplaces more inclusive. Women of color’s day-to-day experiences are primarily shaped by their interactions with managers and colleagues, so it’s critical that employees at all levels are motivated and equipped to be part of the solution. But engaging employees—and keeping them engaged—is hard, and changing habitual behaviors and deep-rooted biases takes time.
To turn their focus into real progress, I’d recommend that companies invest in ongoing training for all employees. We know from our research that only about 15% of employees have participated in allyship training in the past year, and only a little over half have received general bias training. Lean In recently launched a new Allyship at Work training program to help companies close this gap.
Finally, I don’t think companies are doing enough to hold employees accountable. Training is just the first step—it’s not helpful if employees don’t apply the lessons learned in training to their day-to-day interactions with colleagues. I’d challenge all organizations to ask themselves whether, and how, they’re making sure that happens.
Antoine: I was really encouraged to read in the Women in the Workplace research that the representation of women has improved in corporate America. Throughout the pandemic, women have made important gains, and especially in senior leadership. On the flip side, women are significantly more burned out—more so than men. The research found that women are doing more to support their teams and advance DEI efforts. Yet, companies are not recognizing their work. What can business leaders do to continue to elevate women into leadership positions and give them the support that women leaders clearly aren’t getting?
Archana: First, I'd like to add some caveats around the gains in women’s representation. We’re seeing much bigger gains at top levels—for example, in senior VP and C-suite roles—than at lower levels of management. And while gains at any level are good, the truth is that it’s relatively easy to drive progress at the top by hiring just one or two women in key positions. What we really need is for companies to work on reducing bias in their performance review and promotion processes, so women at all levels get an equal opportunity to advance.
There are also other concerning trends, as you noted. Women are increasingly burned out as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, and women leaders are taking on extra work that’s often going unrecognized by their companies. I want to pause on that second point, especially as it relates to DEI, both because I think it’s particularly troubling and because it points to a clear and immediate set of action items.
Our data show that women leaders are more likely than men at their level to spend a significant amount of time on DEI efforts that fall outside of their central job responsibilities—such as leading ERGs, organizing events, and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. And women with traditionally marginalized identities, including women of color, are especially likely to take on this work. But although 70% of companies say the work employees do to promote DEI is very or extremely critical, less than 25% say it’s substantially recognized in formal evaluations like performance reviews.
The call to action for companies is simple: they need to formally recognize and reward employees who are going above and beyond to drive progress on DEI. Failing to do so hurts women, who are investing valuable time and energy in this work but aren’t seeing that reflected in their own compensation or advancement. And in the long run it will hurt companies and all employees, because progress is rarely made on efforts that are undervalued.
Take bolder actions for equity
Antoine: The Momentive/Lean In allyship research we did together in June 2020 found that white employees saw themselves as allies, but Black women and Latinas disagreed. What has happened since we conducted that research? Are there anecdotes you can share about how this data has changed how white employees in positions of power see colleagues from all communities?
Achana: From a data perspective, unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of a shift. There’s still a big gap between the number of white employees who identify as allies, and the number who are taking real action to support and advocate for women of color. We do see some evidence that company leaders are taking this issue seriously and working to equip employees with the tools they need to show up as allies; for example, the share of employees who reported receiving unconscious bias and anti-racism training increased significantly between 2020 and 2021. I’m hopeful that over the next few years we’ll start to see that increased training translating into more active allyship day to day.
Antoine: According to our joint research, only about four in 10 white employees say they’ve spoken out against racial discrimination at work. And of the Black and Latinx women who also spoke out against racial discrimination at work, 36% and 23%, respectively, said they experienced some sort of retaliation. What can we do to give a safe space for employees to report discrimination?
Archana: There are some fundamental steps companies can take, such as providing a channel for anonymous reporting. But what I think this data really speaks to is the importance of white employees—and especially white men—showing up as allies so that the burden of challenging discrimination doesn’t fall so heavily on women of color.
In this year’s Women in the Workplace study, we found that only 6% of white men who’d spoken out against bias experienced retaliation, compared to 14% of white women and 24% of women of color. White men are also much more likely than women of color to hold leadership and management roles—so not only do they face less risk when they speak out, they are often better positioned to influence other employees and change the culture of work.
Advance women of color in the workplace
Antoine: As we look toward a new year, what is the one a-ha moment that you’d like businesses to experience in 2022?
Archana: I want more businesses to recognize that to make real progress on DEI, they need to do deep, systemic work. Many companies have made an effort to hire more employees of diverse identities and backgrounds over the past year, and that’s a good step. But if they don’t invest in ensuring that those employees have a positive experience day to day and get equal opportunity to advance, any progress they make will be short-lived.
To put this in concrete terms—I want to see companies move away from optional, one-off DEI training and toward systems that support ongoing learning and accountability for all employees. I also want companies to put more emphasis on developing and advancing diverse talent at all levels, and on making sure women of color and other employees with traditionally marginalized identities aren’t held back by bias in performance reviews and promotion decisions. And I want more companies to start tracking representation of women of color across levels and functions, and setting specific representation goals, so they can hold themselves accountable for long-term progress.
I’d like to thank Archana for her candid thoughts. I too am hopeful that more businesses would see the long-term benefits of providing ongoing training and frequently checking in on how employees are feeling.
At Momentive, we’re laser-focused on giving marginalized communities meaningful access to employment pipelines, mentorship, and career development opportunities. Through Momentive Together, we are working to help dismantle and reimagine inequitable systems, while ensuring that everyone has what they need to succeed.
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