“No One Looks Like Me”: Why We Need More Women of Color In Leadership

7 min readSep 30, 2016

It isn’t news that women of color have to work harder, perform better and battle the pervasiveness of white privilege assigned to women in the workplace.

Alysia Tate of Chicago Foundation for Women introduces Brittany Spralls and Michelle Morales at the annual Symposium.

And I acknowledge that I am a white woman drenched in privilege.

There is new research and insight into strategies to make workplaces more inclusive and create environments for success for all women.

“My mother said you are black, so you will have to work 10 times harder. You are a woman, so you will have obstacles and you will have to overcome them,” said Brittany Spralls, consultant for Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, at the recent annual symposium for Chicago Foundation for Women.

“Over the years, I have overcome lots of obstacles, but it was hardest entering the workplace where I had to understand the dominant culture. Typically in the workplace, I am the only one who looks like me.”

Spralls said the absence of women of color in leadership roles was confusing. She said she had “to conform to be accepted and seen as safe.” Spralls said in the workplace she has three challenges; she is black, she is a woman and she is young. “Code switching is extremely exhausting. You have to suppress a lot of your authentic self when you enter the workplace.”

Research supports these statements.

According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, “Black women have made some progress relative to white men in terms of earnings. While they made 34 percent less than white men in 2015, in 1979 they made 42.3 percent less than white men. When compared to white women, however, black women are much worse off than they were nearly four decades ago: the wage gap between white and black women has grown from 6 percent in 1979 to 19 percent in 2015,” writes Kerry Close in Money.

“Unfortunately, the news is even worse for young black women: Those just starting their first jobs have seen their wages fall the largest in comparison to white peers. Differences in educational attainment and other factors explain just a third of that wage gap. And that disparity is doubled for black women who only have a high school degree,” Close writes.

Michelle Chen writes in The Nation about the inequities for women of color in the workforce.

Disparities endure despite expanded opportunities for women in the workplace.

“These inequalities persist despite several generations of women’s advancement in society and despite women’s wielding growing political influence,” Chen writes.

“Specifically, what we call the ascent of women in the postwar era has opened doors for women in the corporate workforce, so that middle-class professionals have much easier access to family leave and workplace flexibility. They also can exploit a low-wage caregiving workforce, which is made up largely of poor women of color, in order to make it possible for them to work outside the home.”

At the recent Chicago Foundation for Women Symposium, Michelle Morales, executive director of Mikva Challenge, and a fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago, agreed.

“As women of color, you experience all these same issues as you move up in leadership.” Morales explained that she was the first in her family to attend college and the first woman in her family to work full time. So she did not have much personal experience in female family mentors to draw on as she rose up the ladder to executive director.

Low representation of women of color in leadership continues to affect young women entering the workforce.

“When you move up through leadership position, and you add on top of it, Latina and Puerto Rican, self-doubt creeps in. If you don’t see images that look like you in positions of power, you truly wonder if you have a right to be there and if those spaces are there for you,” Morales said.

She added, “The duality is our community is not ready for female leadership and not ready for women of color in leadership roles. If you are the only person who looks like you, it is daunting and exhausting.”

White women in leadership roles can be allies to women of color.

All women can work together as allies.

Yet at times when a woman of color is in one of the leadership roles in the organization, she can get push back from other women of color in the organization. “They are grappling with their own internal visions of what a female leader looks like,” Morales said.

To make the rise to the top go more smoothly, Morales suggested finding a “sister circle.” Morales adds, “As you are moving through workforce leadership, find a support group. It is mentally and emotionally lifesaving and will push you to stay in those positions of leadership.”

Joy Messinger, program officer of Third Wave Fund, a national fund supporting youth-led reproductive and social justice activism, said it is critical “to increase diversity in the workforce, adding more women of color to leadership positions.” Messinger said, “Question who is not there and why. Use the space you have at work to dismantle barriers.”

Kim L. Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank, said she has been on the receiving end of gender bias in the workplace her entire career. “It was assumed I was the clerical staff in any meeting.” Hunt suggested, “ We need to get out of our silos and do work with other movements to move all of our work forward.”

Vanessa Casillas, a member of Chicago Women in Trades, is a brick mason and third generation bricklayer. “Masonry is in my DNA,” she said.

“We need to work to be our authentic selves in every occupation. This is what bricklayers look like in 2016,” she said. And she is tired of people telling her she does not look like a bricklayer.

Still, the gender bias in trades is stunning.

Even though wages are the same, there is discrimination in the number of hours assigned. “Women of color do not work the same hours as white men. I make 400 hours per year, and a white man makes 1,400 hours,” Casillas said.

Workplace cultures need to be more accepting of all women.

Others across the country agree with these sentiments about women of color in leadership roles and also a workplace culture that is not accepting of their personal choices.

Recently a U.S. District Court of Appeals case represented by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resulted in a woman losing her job because she refused to cut her locs. According to Deborah Douglas writing in Ebony, “In the short term, Chastity Jones, represented by the EEOC, lost her right to keep her job at a Mobile, Alabama, customer service company, working at a call center where customers would never see her.”

Douglas writes: “’This is also an issue of economic justice,’ Sevonna Brown, a New York-based advocate, says. ‘So many Black folks are wanting to advocate for themselves and only work in environments where they are fully accepted by their government name, sexual orientation, gender presentation, etc., and now to be concerned with our hair? This puts many in positions where they cannot feed their families or pay rent.’”

Being a woman of color “in the workplace can prompt feelings of invisibility, casual sexism and lead to a pay gap that could cost black women, in particular, more than $1 million,” writes Lily Workneh in Huffington Post.

Writing from the ColorComm conference in Florida, Workneh points out that the organization “founded by Lauren Wesley Wilson in 2011, is an organization that helps women of color thrive in the communications field.” The conference “aims to shine a light on the many issues women of color often face in the workplace.”

Some of the suggestions culled from the speakers at the recent Florida conference include: being your own leader, demanding what you deserve and being yourself. These align with many of Take The Lead President and Co-Founder Gloria Feldt’s 9 Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career.

There is positive news about women of color at work, particularly women who are entrepreneurs.

“According to a recent American Express report, the number of women-owned businesses in the U.S. has grown five times faster than the national average since 2007. Also awesome? Of the 3.5 million women-owned companies launched between 2007 and 2016, 78 percent are owned by women of color,” writes Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, in Fast Company. She is the Chair of Ellevate Network and the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund.

The motivation to become an entrepreneur does not exist in a vacuum and may be the result of a lack of acceptance in the workplace culture.

According to Alicia Adamczyk writing in Money, “And it’s all of the other discrimination women face in the corporate sector that may be pushing them to become their own bosses. ‘We attribute the growth in women-owned firms to the lack of fair pay, fair promotion, and family-friendly policies found in corporate America,’ Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, told Fortune.

“’Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves.’”

But there are policies aiming to shift those factors. A new Congressional bill introduced by Eleanor Holmes Norton with cosponsors Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) would ban questions about salary history in job interviews and salary negotiations, writes Chrsitine Cauterucci in Slate.

“This new congressional bill could be particularly important for women of color, whose average adjusted-for-inflation earnings declined between 2004 and 2014, according to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.”

She continues, “The wage gap between men and women, on average, has been gradually closing, partly because men’s wages have been dropping. But white women have reaped a disproportionate share of the benefits. A federal ban on using salary history to inform pay offers could give women of color a much-needed boost, especially for those who rightly suspect that negotiating a salary could make them seem aggressive or disagreeable to potential employers.”

The bottom line, said Spralls at The Chicago Foundation for Women symposium, is simple. “Women of color need to be in leadership roles.”

This column ran originally in Take The Lead.




Author of Act Like You’re Having A Good Time +5 other books; NU emerita faculty; journo, OpEd Project leader; editorial director TakeTheLead, mother of 3 sons.