The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women.
They faced the steepest unemployment rates; higher COVID deaths (most worked on the frontline in healthcare services) compared to men.
In addition to this, BAME women were more likely to work in the sectors of the economy that lost the most jobs e.g. hospitality, retail, tourism, business and government.
So, What’s Going On?
The journey for increased representation and change continues to be slow for women of colour, as organisations strive to become more inclusive.
The pandemic revealed disturbing racial and ethnic disparities in many sectors.
Gender diversity programmes are not enough. While they can provide an initial jolt, all too often enthusiasm fades and old habits reemerge.
Values last if they are lived every day by the leadership on down. If gender diversity fits with that value set, almost all the people in an organisation will want to bring more of themselves to work every day.
The intersection of racism and sexism means BAME women are experiencing a different and more difficult recovery not just because of the types of jobs they are likely to hold, but also because they are treated differently within those jobs e.g. pay inequality and stagnate career progress.
If women are saying that they aim just as high as their male peers do e.g. 75% of all mid- or senior-level women want to reach top management, compared with 81% of men.
The lack of autonomy and limited opportunities for advancement or responsibility leaves them feeling they are operating on the periphery of an organisation with partial access to more dynamic, internal jobs.
Over two decades later, the diversity, equity and inclusive commitment by organisations have not translated into meaningful progress. Promotions are still slow, new opportunities are rare and managers are not sponsoring or advocating on their behalf which would allow them to advance in the company.
This is all hidden behind a toxic leadership style that uses aggressive microaggressions to challenge female BAMEs competence and skills.
The Facts Are Not Encouraging
52% of Black women report being the “only” of their gender and race at work. They are often more likely to feel uncomfortable bringing their whole selves to work: 42% feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts about racial inequity and 22% feel like they can’t talk about the impact current events are having on them or people in their community e.g. Black Lives Matter etc.
In the UK, BAME directors represent about 8% of the total of over 5,000 director positions. There are only 15 BAME persons who hold the position of Chair or CEO according to the Sir John Parker Review of the Ethnic Diversity of UK Boards (updated 2020).
It also revealed that most minority ethnic board members who were directors had a financial services background and had executive experience in banking (47%) and investment (22%).
Other sector experiences of minority ethnic directors include 21% in technology, media and telecommunications, with a tie between consumer and industrial sector backgrounds in third place at 14%.
It also highlighted that female ethnic minority directors were on average, slightly younger than men (57.2 vs 59.6 years) and had been sitting on the board for half of the average tenure of their male counterparts (2.7 vs 5.1 years).
What’s the Problem?
Across all data it is commonly believed that the more diverse companies are, the better they able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision-making, all which lead to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.
This will become more important as more women are choosing to downshift their careers which is not only a loss to the organisations but the gender diversity agenda.
Even former President Barack Obama lamented:
"Companies with a critical mass of women in leadership perform better, are more profitable, have higher stock valuations. If you are on the board of a company and you look around and it is all a bunch of men, you have got a problem. You are not well organized to succeed."
Interestingly, racial and ethnic diversity has a stronger impact on financial performance in the United States than gender diversity, perhaps because earlier efforts to increase women’s representation in the top levels of business have already yielded positive results.
The best-performing companies, that have demonstrated a culture of successfully advancing women dates back decades.
According to research in the United Kingdom, greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10 per cent increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5 per cent.
It’s not too late.
Companies and policymakers can make small steps for meaningful change. The Hampton-Alexander review recommends more companies prioritise succession planning and talent management on their board agenda to improve the appointment of women into executive roles.
Will Women of Colour Be Overlooked for the Race to the Top?
Given the higher returns that diversity is expected to bring, we believe it is better for companies to invest now since winners will pull further ahead and laggards will fall further behind.
Research consistently highlights companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. It’s good for the company’s bottom line and the economy.
So why do senior female professionals of colour still struggle to achieve parity in the workplace?
Realistically, we will never totally eradicate discrimination but companies can develop a ‘no tolerance' culture for harassment, bullying and the rising (covert) microaggression behaviour of leaders.
If companies want their diverse workforce to feel supported and welcome then there needs to be explicit commitments to advancing and supporting them (like others), accompanied by actionable execution plans.
This commitment will determine how confident women of colour feel about thriving in your organisation and maybe they will have more faith in your equity-driven career pathways.
McKinsey and Company, Women in the Workplace | Forbes
About The Author
Sonia Brown MBE is an award-winning DE&I and business owner; marketing and branding specialist; a prolific networker and speaker on the intersection of female business, politics and leadership issues.
She is the founder of the National Black Women’s Network and SistaTalk. Sonia is committed to helping professionals and businesswomen build their best careers through her EVOLVE Business and coaching programmes.
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