We are not our hair. We are not our clothes. We will not be hidden anymore. And we are not children.
Talk to black women about the times they have been marginalized, ignored, undervalued, tone policed, or disrespected in the work place because they were black women and you will hear common patterns.
This week #BlackWomenatWork exploded on Twitter. Brittany Packnett invited black women to share their stories and highlight the everyday racism black women face at work — and black women spoke out. The stories show commonality of being undervalued, ignored, disrespected, being overlooked, not receiving credit for their contributions and outright racism. The experience of black women in the workplace has been described as a fight. Black professionals enter the workplace with advice and strategies on navigating the microaggressions and outright dismissals they will face, another variation on the strategies they use to thrive in communities, schools and more as a minority in a race conscious society. The trending Twitter discussion has now birthed articles discussing race, gender and the workplace including how hiring diversity alone doesn't solve the problem.
Excellence in the workplace is tied to investing, equipping, respecting and valuing talent. Everyone wants their strengths and talents leveraged, to be recognized for their work, to be included and valued on teams. Inclusion is an integral component of success and being competitive in the marketplace. Which is why the stories in response to #BlackWomenatWork included many head nods and "me too" mental notes along with a strong sense that we must address these indignities.
The standard diversity response of elders and mentors is to offer strategies for black women to survive and thrive despite these behaviors that demoralize, insult, belittle, create invisibility and silence. We hear some organizations and individuals minimize such incidents as not a big deal. This is simply not good enough. And the cost over time is high. Organizations must develop strategies to address such problems and equip leaders to do better. Telling people to ignore racist behavior or microinequities, or dismissing calls for change as political correctness gone amok, is not a strategy for success. We should not ask people of color to continue carrying the burden of being marginalized when we can, in fact, do better.
Microinequities, microaggressions and implicit bias are not novel ideas. The concept of microaggressions and microinequities is not new. We know that such slights, rooted in bias, have a cumulative effect in universities, our communities and workplaces. In recent years, implicit bias has been the hot focus for organizational diversity training and has been incorporated into our discussions as we tackle such topics as police interactions with people of color and the representation of women and minorities in media. We understand the impact of bias on our talent development and team performance. What is your organization doing to educate everyone about microaggressions, microinequities and implicit bias, and provide tools to mitigate and reduce such behavior?
Courageous leadership includes calling out problematic behavior.
Too often the conversation on diversity centers on what women, minorities and other underrepresented groups should do to succeed in the workplace. Insufficient emphasis is placed on organizationalleadership to cultivate a culture that makes bad behavior unwelcome. If we are to make a dent in the inequity black women face in the workplace and the attendant results of pay disparity and promotions, then leaders must be courageous enough to recognize when bad behavior occurs, and call it out. But because not all inappropriate behavior is malicious, we must raise awareness and equip people to behave better.
Being inclusive is a leadership competency.
We must make being inclusive a leadership competency across our organizations. Organizations that have diverse teams that are managed inclusively outperform their competitors that lack diversity. We know that our country's diversity demographics continue to change, and people of color will be the majority by 2044. The ability to leverage the best out of our talent, lead effectively across cultural differences, show respect and build trust becomes a critical leadership competency.
End this conversation with accountability.
Efforts cannot stop with education and awareness. Awareness is not enough. Accountability is a necessary component for change. Women before me have navigated these biases in the workplace that have become the center point of the #BlackWomenatWork stories. These stories should lead us to action. Leaders should begin conversations about whether their talent have had similar experiences within their organizations. Leaders must create systems of accountability by encouraging and rewarding the behaviors desired, while discouraging and penalizing unacceptable behaviors. An organization that ignores the perpetual bad behavior perpetrators, communicates its acceptance of disparaging some of its talent. Accountability is a key component of creating inclusion.
Allies, please speak up and interrupt
“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow. ” – Alice Walker
The image of the Strong Black Woman persists because it is true and has provided a way for black women to thrive. But it doesn't excuse the challenges and obstacles black women continue to navigate. Our strength doesn't make the disrespect hurt any less, the bias impact our pocket books any less, or equalize the access to opportunities when we are overlooked or undervalued. Many instances of microinequity, cultural insensitivity or bias can be interrupted. Interruption does not have to be hostile; it can happen gently. It can happen in a way that educates. But it should be done. Bystanders should become disrupters and can be trained to do it well.
Strategies for black women include speaking up
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Black women, like others, have to navigate the world as it is. Gender bias is real. We are taught to conserve our energy for the big fights. Black women also have to be wary of the "Angry Black Woman" stereotype thrown at us, and more. But I have one more solution: speak your truth.
Women must be empowered to say something is wrong when it is. I have taught my oldest daughter since she was three years oldhow to speak up to bullies and people who are hurtful. I have taught her to say with a calm voice "Please don't speak to me like that again,” and other responses as appropriate. She now helps me coach her younger sister on speaking up, to make clear when she does not give consent, her thoughts when she has been hurt or disrespected, and what she will not tolerate.
As we grow older, women receive messages that remind us to be quiet, don't make too much noise, don't cause trouble, get along, don't be bossy, etc. Many workplaces penalize women for bringing attention to issues of bias and disrespect, label them as complainers and weak if they do, and marginalize them if they speak up. It is not unreasonable that women put up with more than I would want for my daughters. I have personally put up with things I do not want my daughters to have to deal with. But we will be having this conversation 10 years from now if we don't change this dynamic. So, black women must teach others how they should be treated, speak up in the face of blatant disrespect and racism in effective ways, negotiate for what we are worth, take up space, accept and demand our value, and challenge those who address us in ways that are not acceptable.
Let's change this conversation in our workplaces. Black women at work deserve to be valued and respected. Organizations can do more to be inclusive. Leaders can be equipped to be inclusive and disrupt bias. This is doable. Like Maya Angelou said, when you know better, do better. We have no excuse.
Kori is a people inclusion strategist, advocate, speaker, writer, wife and mother of two spitfires who loves to sing, cook, entertain, dance in the hallways and read when she is not equipping leaders to be inclusive and interrupt bias, and developing and implementing strategies to build bridges across differences and improve inclusion. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram as @koricarew.