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Are Black Women Treated Fairly in the Workplace?

A new study says no

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A group of women in an office space sit around a communal desk, talking and working on computers.
irene rinaldi
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You worked hard to get to your position. You show up early, you go above and beyond to complete your projects and you go to all the work dinners and happy hours even when you’d rather be at home watching Shondaland. You check all the boxes, and you do it with a smile. Everything should be all good for you, right? According to a new Women in the Workplace 2018” study published by and McKinsey & Company, Black women aren’t getting the same opportunities as their male and white counterparts regardless of work performance.

Nearly half of the study participants report being the only Black person in their department or in the entire organization, which leads to microaggressions like colleagues and managers questioning their judgement in their area of expertise and being asked to provide more evidence to prove their competence despite already being an employee.

A midlevel administrator who had been at her company for four years was quoted saying, “I feel like I have to represent the entire race. I need to come across as more than proficient, more than competent, more than capable. I have to be ‘on’ all the time. Because in the back of someone’s mind, they could be judging the entire race based on me. And I don’t want anybody else’s opportunity to be ruined because I messed it up.”

The study found that these microaggressions have real consequences for Black women’s career trajectory. Black women are promoted to a manager position only 60 percent as often as men.

A Black female entry-level professional and study participant shared her anxiety around getting promoted at her company. “At a meeting with the COO, a young woman asked him, ‘How do you get to where you’re at?’ He replied, ‘It’s all who you know.’ Hearing that, I felt defeated. If that’s true, how am I going to get there? I want to be there. I think I deserve to be there. But I don’t have those connections.”

A common way employees rise through the ranks of corporate America is through mentorship, but the “Women in the Workplace 2018” study found that of all demographics Black women receive the least support from managers when trying to navigate office politics and balance their work and personal lives. Also, managers are less likely to promote Black women’s accomplishments.

While Black women face significant obstacles at the workplace, the study outlines concrete steps employers can take to drive organizational change. These actions include setting goals, tracking and reporting on progress and rewarding success; ensuring that hiring and promotions are fair; making managers and senior leaders champions of diversity; fostering an inclusive and respectful culture and making the “only” experience rare.

The onus is on organizations to make lasting changes, but Black women can also do things to make their experience and the experience of other Black women better at the workplace. Meg Duffy, independent career coach based in Brooklyn, says, “If you look up in your organization and don’t see relatable leadership, it’s time to look outside for mentorship. Find an in-person meetup or online organization that serves women in your sector and build relationships there.”

Duffy, who specializes in tech, an industry in which Black women are underrepresented, adds that “speaking to other women who were in your shoes relatively recently can help you feel less alone, more supported and better equipped to handle difficult workplace situations.” Finding others in the same field may be challenging, though. According to a 2013 study from the Center for American Progress, only 2 percent of Black women work in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.