More women of color are entering the workforce than ever before, bringing ambition, education, and diverse experiences and ideas with them. As a result, these women offer organizations a powerful force of innovation and insight that will be increasingly needed to meet the needs of a diverse customer base. However, despite the value that women of color represent for businesses, they’re rarely given leadership positions, not to mention roles in the C-suite. Currently, there are no female black or Latina CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
For over a decade, the Center for Talent Innovation has completed and compiled research on gender and racial dynamics of the workplace. There is sufficient evidence that women of color face significant obstacles that have historically limited their advancement. Moreover, women of color are more likely than white women to feel they must compromise their authenticity if they want to be leaders. Studies show, 72% of black women, 53% of Latinas, and 52% of Asian women say that “executive presence” at their company is defined as conforming to traditionally white male standards. In contrast, only 44% of white women felt that way.
In this day and age, any organization that wants to realize the full potential of its employees should be taking action to create a safe and inclusive workplace where women of color can achieve their full potential. We’ve gathered some facts that employers, leaders, and managers can use:
No matter how well-prepared women of color are, it’s unlikely they will get a seat at the table unless the people at the table allow them to pull up a chair. Organizations can take the necessary steps to make this happen. One company, for instance, created a leadership program that puts employees with high potential on the management track and also targets the supervisors who select the candidates. In order to remove the bias from training, supervisors learned to understand and control their inclinations to nominate candidates who were similar to themselves and instead acknowledge and accept great candidates of color. In the end, the supervisors committed to offering these women leadership opportunities within one year.
There are numerous reasons why workplaces in the United States must change, but one significant one is that the country is changing demographically, as a recent U.S. Bureau report makes clear. Consequently, organizations need diverse leaders who reflect the changing marketplace. When a company’s teams reflect its target customers, the entire team is more than twice as likely to innovate effectively for their end-users.
Leaders need to create a safe team environment where all employees are able to speak their mind, be heard, and feel welcome. They should embrace the input of employees whose expertise or backgrounds differ from their own, and foster collaboration between diverse staff, facilitate constructive arguments, ask questions of all members of the team, give actionable feedback, and act upon the advice of diverse employees. Also, leaders can make women of color feel included and valued by prizing authenticity over conformity and operating from an understanding that a range of communication and presentation styles can succeed in the workplace.
Companies such as Bank of America have created programs that expedite the progress of women and people of color by pairing them with more experienced sponsors who help them learn the ropes — over the long haul, not just in their first weeks or months on the job. However, a mentor’s advice is simply not enough; a sponsor’s meaningful advocacy makes a major difference.
Ensure that inclusion is a core value of the company — don’t just incorporate inclusion so you can “check a box” off the list. For instance, a multinational company instituted a tracking and reporting system to measure progress against the diversity and inclusion goals for each division. Leaders were held accountable with 10% of their bonuses tied to their specific goals.
If businesses are to grow and thrive now and in the future, it’s important to lift the voices of women of color and reject institutional barriers to their success. In order to do this, business leaders must deliberately address the relentless undertone of discrimination that continues to prevent them from doing their jobs. We must unleash all talent and, in the process, create more profit, equity, and a better world.