Black, female and in the workplace. Looking behind closed doors at the diversity gap

A friend of mine Deborah Okenla wrote a blog a while ago about the underrepresentation of People of Colour’s female counterparts in the UK tech industry. Ironically, her frustration spurred from a lack of ethnic minority speakers at a women in tech diversity event. The event organisers explained they ‘didn’t have the time’ to source a more diverse speaking agenda.

Riled by their response, Deborah called on her Twitter followers to help her build a list of black women in tech as a useful resource and incremental attempt to solve the issue of their underrepresentation at industry events. Her blog went viral and most recently spoke on Virgin’s Future Visions podcast series about ways to address this inequality.

I recommend listening to the podcast with Cindy Gallop (MakeLoveNotPorn), Vicki Hearn (Nominet Trust), Jonathan Sposato (startup investor) and Debbi Okenla (Where are the Faces). They spoke in depth about the reasons behind limited diversity of women in leading corporate positions. Such as, black women having a strong sense of ambition yet the slowest movement up the corporate ladder and the effects language has on the perception of leadership.

All very interesting. So what about the cultural factors that may affect a black woman’s ability to reach and be seen in a public leadership role? I’ll aim to share my thoughts and findings.

Women of colour are brought up to be ambitiously minded and this can sometimes be crippling. This origins from two places:

  1. African-Caribbean families who were of the middle-classes in their origin countries before moving to the UK. Parents or grandparents previously held professional jobs like lawyers, doctors or headteachers, owned a wealth of land with high local status and due to ethnic barriers when relocating to the UK attained working class jobs with a lesser lifestyle. They wanted their children to continue the family legacy that was now compromised and so instilled beliefs that in order to succeed in the UK, they would need to work harder than anyone else to be given a chance and can expect to put up a fight.
  2. African-Caribbean families of the working classes in their origin countries who bought into the sold progressive ideology that enticed them to the UK. They have an overwhelming desire to provide more for their children than they had themselves. They do not want their children to endure the hardships they face. They focus heavily on educational excellence being a way to protect them from hardship to reach new opportunities and so emphasise on educational prestige during their upbringing. Many women of colour are familiar with the lecture “you must be a doctor, lawyer or engineer!” and “go read a book!”

So it’s commonplace for women of colour to pressure themselves to succeed. In fact 81% want to obtain high ranking positions and 87% want to have influential roles. This ‘emotional tax’ can lead to overworking (as prolific doers with unrealistic expectations), ‘burn out’ and challenges with mental health. Research shows ‘prolific doers’ are less likely to be promoted and women are less likely to be successful in promotion/salary raise negotiations.

Women of colour can feel alienated from leadership roles due to cultural disparities.

Women are more likely to communicate with inclusive language that does not typically speak to the male leadership archetype. “I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on…”, “let’s discuss how we…”, “how do we move forward?” are not phrases typical of male leaders and can be interpreted by male leadership as weak and indecisive.

Women have been taught to masculinise their language to suit this expectation. However women of colour are often unique to the rule. Culturally, women of colour are straight talking, abrupt and to the point. This can be perceived as threatening or argumentative so overtime condition themselves to soften their communication style to suit corporate expectations.

Cultural misinterpretation of behaviour

Black women, like men, are often seen as aggressive, dominant and confrontational in the workplace, due to the african-caribbean culture of being expressive, vibrant and passionate individuals (think the exotic equivalent of the Italian stereotype). This can be misinterpreted in the workplace as ‘not a team player’, ‘rebellious’, ‘subordinate’ and ‘disrespectful’ causing conflicts with colleagues and line managers.

This alienation from management or peers can be detrimental to a Woman of Colour’s confidence in her own abilities. I have met many black women who say their main challenge in the workplace is fitting in with the company and being accepted as they are.

Being taught to be a strong black woman doesn’t fit in the workplace

Now I am a huge supporter of the strong black woman (SBW). A woman who faces continual adversity and ridicule who stands up as a strong majestic figure against all odds who won’t let anyone or anything bring them down because their worth is only determined by self-worth. In fact, if women of all races adopted this mentality we might tackle the many inequalities women face, chisel by chisel. But being a strong black woman isn’t easy. It’s taxing and demands every part of our lives.

At home, black women are typically viewed in the household to be the spine of the family or the relationship. They are valued as the decision-maker, the authority, the advisor and the nurturer. They’re more likely to bulldoze gender norms and ‘do it all’.

While in the workplace, it’s more appeasing to take one of three roles: the nurturer who looks after their peers or their team, the advisor who lends a voice of reason, or the authority that is not to be reckoned with. If they take on more than one role they’re likely to be perceived as stepping above and beyond, giving too much and overworking.

But if this is their standard approach, limiting their focus means they’re likely to feel unsatisfied or frustrated that their skills aren’t valued or recognised. Those that are not given this freedom might regress or move on as they continue to find a place that accepts them for who they are rather than an acceptable image of themselves.

So what can we do?

Black female leaders will become more commonplace if we holistically and relentlessly tackle inequality in the workplace. Companies should value cultural diversity at the heart of its company culture. A more diverse workplace is a more creative and resilient one. Employees should call out on evidence of inequality, employers should welcome this and work together with employees to solve it.

Cultural inclusion should be taken seriously. Simply hiring and promoting those that mirror your own views or values won’t improve business success. Having people who can challenge the status quo and broaden thinking outside of a comfortable sphere is invaluable.

Black women and other ethnic minorities will feel more empowered to progress and will have more opportunities to do so if the workplace becomes more representative of the local demographic. It means there will be a lesser need to filter behaviour or appearance to suit a single lens and bosses will gain more from their employees if employees feel accepted. It will mean everyone will feel comfortable with speaking out on their professional views without fear of judgement and will diffuse a once hostile working environment. This includes discussions of inequality and discrimination. It will mean better decisions can be made in relation to culturally sensitive issues.

A recent example that comes to mind is the Dove t-shirt removal advert. To some it may seem completely harmless and a great representation of showing ethnic diversity. To others who are sitting on a history of discriminatory advertising due to the colour of their skin, might pick up on the nuances others missed. If the teams developing and reviewing this advert were more representative of the target audience the advert outcome may have differed.

Cultural diversity is not a compromise. It is a strength. I hope businesses begin to realise this so those that are most capable of leadership roles are given the opportunity to thrive.

What has been your experience?

I’d love to know your thoughts. Have you experienced this? Have you or your employer tackled inequality or been confronted by it? How have you tried to address your place in the workplace? What accounts do you have with gender and race inequality at work? I’d love to hear more.