Supporting Black women in the workplace

Black woman

Black women have a distinctly worse experience at work.

Data reveals that Black women face more barriers to advancement, they receive less support from their managers, and they experience more incidents of day-to-day discrimination. That’s a critical warning from McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study.

And now, the pandemic is compounding those disparities as Black women are laid off at a higher rate. Black employees, of all genders, are coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their community and the emotional toll of racial conflict. Meanwhile, women are reporting greater levels of burnout as they take on a heavier share of caregiving when schools close.

This is the proof of intersectionality laid bare. Different forms of inequality overlap and compound disadvantage. As organizations, as employers, we need to take action to support the most marginalized among us.

Shine a light on the problem

Be clear about your commitment to support Black women. Educate leaders and managers on the very real disadvantages faced by Black women in the workplace. Track your diversity efforts by gender and race, so you can see how Black women are progressing (or not) in your company.

Promote active allyship

Talk about the difference between active and passive inclusion. Allyship MUST be active. Most of your leaders probably believe themselves to be welcoming and supportive of others. But they need to understand that passive inclusion is not enough.

Examples of passive inclusion:

  • Helps individuals if asked
  • Expects people to fit in
  • Tends to ignore differences
  • Says the right things but little action
  • Will act when required


Examples of active inclusion:

  • A vocal, visible leader for inclusion
  • Builds diverse teams
  • Encourages authenticity
  • Amplifies diverse opinions
  • Challenges non-inclusive behavior

Communicate and repeat

Keep inclusion messages top-of-mind. Build inclusion into your internal and external communication channels—not just a few times a year, but all the time. It takes ongoing effort to build an inclusive culture and embed inclusion in your organization’s DNA.

Mandate inclusive leadership programs

Communicate corporate priorities for inclusion by making diversity and inclusion programs mandatory for all managers. Keep at it. This is not a one-and-done endeavor.

Build a call-in culture

Championing inclusion requires the courage to speak up when something needs to change. An internal campaign at RBC Capital Markets encourages employees to “Speak Up for Inclusion.” Employees are reminded to call attention to inappropriate conduct and address issues of unfairness.

But it takes work to create a place where employees feel safe to have those conversations. How do you call out problems in a professional manner? And how do you respond when it’s your own mea culpa that’s due? There’s fear on both sides, and people need skills to address racism and equity conversations in a constructive way.

Measure inclusion

Keep tabs on the employee experience. Incorporate questions on inclusion, belonging, safety, and authenticity into employee opinion surveys. Consider questions like these:

  • I feel free to speak up.
  • I am treated with respect.
  • I feel like I belong here.
  • I can express a difference of opinion without negative consequence.

Track ally success

Incorporate inclusion into performance management systems. Identify teams with the highest scores for inclusion and representation. Recognize your shining stars and highlight where inclusion is tangibly linked to performance. Then use that data to influence your doubters and laggers.

Talk to your Black women

Hold focus groups, group coaching sessions, stay interviews – talk to the Black women in your organization directly. Ask them to share their real lived experiences. Only then can leaders understand the systemic racism and barriers they face. And when people do have the courage to speak up, be listening—really listening. Then take action on their feedback.

Mentor, sponsor, and COACH

Examine your mentorship/sponsorship programs and make sure Black women are being included at an equitable rate. Now go further. Provide your talent with company-sponsored coaching and then make a concerted push for Black women to use it. Or host group coaching sessions specifically for women of color.

Because coaches come from outside the organization, Black women may feel safer disclosing the challenges they’re facing at work. Coaches may be better equipped to provide cultural or social support in ways white mentors fall short.

Get past the pushback

Accept that targeted interventions are part of creating equity. Once you’ve identified where the need is greatest, that’s where you need to focus your attention. Some of your efforts will not be equally accessible to everyone. But that’s what it takes to reduce disparity. If your leaders can’t accept that, then they can’t do the anti-racism work required.