Removing Barriers and Bias for Black Women – Essential Actions for Employers

  • Monday, March 7, 2022
  • Posted By The Growth Company

To mark International Women’s Day 2022, the Growth Company hosted a virtual round table to address the unique challenges that Black women face in the workplace by being at the intersection of gender and race inequality. Chaired by Novlette Balela OBE, GC’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, the discussion was centred around research conducted by the Black Women in Leadership Network, which showed that:

  • Four in ten Black women do not believe that they are offered the same career advancement opportunities as their non-black female colleagues, with almost half believing that they are overlooked for promotion
  • Two in three Black women experienced racial bias at work
  • A third of Black women resigned due to experiencing race-related unfair treatment
  • Four in ten Black women do not believe that they earn the same as their non-black female colleagues who are performing the same job – convinced that racial bias was a contributing factor to the earning disparity

The panel was made up of a collective of black businesswomen from a range of sectors, including legal, tech, education and recruitment, who all shared their experiences of being a Black woman in the workplace.

The realities of the workplace for Black women

Whilst employers may be under the illusion that they’re fostering an inclusive workplace culture, the reality is often very different.

Sharon Amenu, Director of SA Consulting and Co-Founder of She Leads for Legacy said: “One of the ideas that organisations often have in their minds is that Black women don’t have the ambition to aspire to leadership roles. I often ask myself who are the Black women that they’re speaking to, because there’s a piece of research from leanin.org that identified that Black women are up to 8% more ambitious than their white counterparts. We don’t lack ambition – we really want those roles. It’s about the gatekeepers recognising our potential.”

This sentiment was echoed by Ceewhy Ochoga, Founder and CEO of Black Impact - a national African and Caribbean student network that seeks to support the leadership development and career aspirations of Black students in the United Kingdom. Ceewhy said: “It’s the organisations that project that onto you - they look at you like you can’t have any ambition. So, whatever Black women are bringing to the table, it’s not really seen. You work twice as hard to get your foot in the door and to have a seat at the table, and then it somewhat shapes your personality to become someone who strives for the best – but that is then misconstrued or misunderstood, and I’m labelled as aggressive. I have been told that my personality is too strong that I’ll struggle to get a job because hiring managers will be intimidated and think that I only want to take their job. But, if I dumb down, then that’s interpreted as a lack of ambition on my part.”

Being confronted with these realities on a regular basis means that women have had to develop mechanisms to help them cope with this kind of discrimination. For Ayisatu Emore, Director and Health Coach at Idaraya Life C.I.C, this includes learning to be secure in herself as a woman in the workplace. Ayisatu said: “I have insecurities present in other places, but in terms of work I am quite assured of myself, and I think being able to go out with that confidence without apology has really served me well.”

However, having to continually face these challenges on their own, and on an individual level rather than a business level, can take an emotional toll and lead to what is known as ‘racial fatigue’.

The ‘hire to fire’ cycle  

The Centre for Community Organizations (COCO) outlined the typical experience that Women of Colour have in the workplace.

On the surface, employers want to seem inclusive – but in fact, they’re often reluctant to do the work necessary to make their organisation inclusive, or simply don’t know how to implement the changes required.

Changing the narrative

Our panel discussed how organisations can #BreakTheBias and foster a diverse and inclusive workplace culture where Black women can thrive, progress and be heard.

The Importance of Respect

Sandra Smith, Director of Learning and Founder at Focus Lane Books, said: “Employers need to make you feel that there is a safe place where a Black woman can go to. There needs to be that safe haven where they can speak to you, because we do have a uniqueness and have unique concerns. It’s about feeling respected, valued and that something we’re saying (or the advice that we’re giving you) needs to be acted on.

Fiona Miller, Justice Service Hub Manager at the Growth Company, agreed that it’s crucial for employers to show respect. She said: “The bare minimum to me is to demonstrate a high level of respect for a Black person. I think that bare minimum will take an individual a long way, but unfortunately that’s difficult for some people to conceptualise, never mind implement in their day-to-day actions. Empowering a Black woman in the workplace isn’t a major thing to do because I believe we’re actually already empowered, we just need that level of respect demonstrated when we’re in your organisation so we can excel, do good for the organisation and do good for the people we’re actually serving.”

Removing Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is a term used to describe associations that we hold, without having any conscious awareness of them and training courses are offered to reduce the risk of this influencing decision making during the hiring process.

Laolu Dada, Chief Operating Officer at Black Codher and part of the founding team of Niyo Enterprise, works closely with employers to hold them accountable to any unconscious bias that Black women experience. “In my observation a lot of the time it is unconscious bias - these rose-tinted glasses employers are wearing - and they’re using this to mark against black women when they’re applying for roles or working in an organisation. It’s so detrimental because the women then begin to internalise this”, Laolu said.

Understanding – and acting on - your data

The starting block of being able to implement positive change is understanding your organisation’s data. Sharon said: “Look at who is in your organisation and where they sit in the organisation. Then go beyond that, and understand what is their experience within the organisation? To what extent do they feel included? Do they feel valued? Do they feel as though they belong? To what extent do they feel that the opportunities for career progression are just as available to them as they are to their white counterparts? See what the data is telling you about your current state of affairs, because unless you do, you won’t know what you’re addressing. You also need to respond to that. There’s no point gathering the data and then doing nothing with it. Put in place formal organisational structures to address what you’ve found - and then measure and monitor the impact.”

Laolu also highlighted the importance of assessing data from the very start of the recruitment process. “What does the average applicant to their organisation look like? How can they expand or change the sorts of funnels they are marketing to in order to attract candidates for these roles? A lot of the time, companies go to the same recruitment agencies with the attitude of finding a 24-year-old white male with an accounting degree. But they’re not looking at these massive online communities of Black women with various skills – really talented people that they can tap into. Talent is so important, and when organisations realise there are different streams they can use to find talent, they will naturally begin to experience diversity.”

Recognising the impact of running a diverse and inclusive business on your bottom line

There are so many incredible advantages of diversifying your workforce, but did you know that it can directly impact your bottom line? “Google’s ‘I Am Remarkable’ campaign in 2020 actually found that $65 billion is spent yearly replacing people who have been discriminated against, and that’s a massive amount of money”, Laolu added. “When you look at it, organisations exist to make profit, and they need to understand that embracing diversity in their organisation helps their bottom line. A lot of companies don’t see it like that, but it’s beneficial to make sure that those people behind the scenes look like your customers and the people buying from you”.

What other steps can I take as an employer?

Jay Bhayani, Solicitor and Managing Director at Bhayani HR & Employment Law, highlights things businesses can implement to make the workplace a diverse and inclusive environment:

  1. Consider having an anti-racism strategy. The CIPD has a useful guide which sets out six key principles that you can use as a starting point
  2. Offer Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity and unconscious bias training to the entire workforce
  3. Offer training on employment rights and raising sensitive issues at work
  4. Offer mentoring schemes and work experience opportunities for those without connections in hard-to-reach communities. This is a particularly great way to inspire young Black women who are at the start of their careers
  5. Make Black people a key part of the decision making in organisations to promote cultural change
  6. Carry out ethnicity pay gap reporting – there is no mandatory requirement to do this in the same way there is with gender pay gap reporting, but voluntarily undertaking it shows your commitment to Diversity and Inclusion
  7. Take complaints seriously and ensure there are no negative repercussions for people who raise concerns about their treatment. Employees need a safe space in which to challenge unacceptable behaviour

This International Women’s Day, we are urging all employers to reflect on their Diversity and Inclusion strategies, and take the necessary steps to create a happier, healthier and more prosperous working environment for talented Black women. Together, we can #BreakTheBias, change the narrative, and start to eradicate some of the distressing challenges which Black women are still facing to this day.

Roundtable Panel  

Novlette Balela OBE
Equality Diversity and Inclusion Lead, The Growth Company
Sharon Amesu
Director of SA Consulting and Co-Founder of She Leads for Legacy
Jay Bhayani
Solicitor & Managing Director, Bhayani HR & Employment Law
Laolu Dada
Chief Operating Officer, Black Codher and Founding Team, Niyo Enterprise
Ayisatu Emore
Director and Health Coach, Idaraya Life C.I.C
Ceewhy Ochoga
Founder and CEO, Black Impact
Sandra Smith
Director of Learning and Founder, Focus Lane Books
Fiona Miller
Service Hub Manager – Justice, The Growth Company