Women from all walks of life experience sexism in ways that few men ever will, but when sexism and racism intersect for women workers, the impacts are far-reaching. Women in the Workplace — the largest study on the state of women in corporate America — has just been released with its 2021 findings, and the overall message is disheartening.
Both Lean In and McKinsey & Company collected information from 65,000 employees to uncover how the increased attention to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has affected women’s overall experience in the workplace. The study found that, despite an uptick in companies’ commitment to DEI, there is a real lack of improvement in women’s day-to-day working life. In particular, Women of Colour experience an enormous allyship gap (meaning white employees think they are active allies), but white employees’ misguided efforts leave underrepresented women feeling unsupported and unable to get ahead in their careers.
The allyship disconnect: why white employees need to do better
When Women of Colour feel supported by strong allies at work they are happier in their jobs and less likely to want to leave or experience burnout. In the study, more than three-quarters of white employees claimed to ally themselves with Women of Colour, but when their allyship actions were analyzed, some of the most meaningful measures for Women of Colour were rarely engaged.
There’s a real disconnect between what white employees think they are doing and what they are actually doing for Women of Colour at work
For example, mentoring or sponsoring Women of Colour is only put into action by 10 per cent of white employees, while advocating for new opportunities for Women of Colour is done by only 21 per cent of white employees. In addition, less than 40 per cent of white employees actively confront racial discrimination. There’s a real disconnect between what white employees think they are doing and what they are actually doing for Women of Colour at work.
The different ways that women are “othered” at work
Women in the workplace who are “onlys” — as in, the only person in the room of a particular gender, sexual orientation or race — have a decidedly difficult work experience as a result. How race, orientation and disability intersect with gender is another way women feel “othered”, scrutinized and devalued. Women who are “onlys” or “double-onlys” (the only woman and the only person of an underrepresented identity) reported experiencing frequent microaggressions, such as surprise at their language skills, being interrupted more than others or having their judgement questioned. Adding insult to injury, working mothers who are “onlys” report feeling burned out — but are uncomfortable admitting it because they’re worried that asking for a flexible work schedule will ultimately hurt their careers.
Despite the agenda to advance diversity and inclusion, women are still underrepresented at all levels of upper management. And while it’s great to ensure that women of diverse identities are represented, numbers alone aren’t enough. All women should be able to come to work and feel respected and valued for their unique perspective and life experience — not in spite of it. Is this really so much to ask?
How to move forward: what can white employees do?
Women of Colour certainly don’t lack determination, confidence or ambition — what they do lack is true understanding from co-workers and bosses. So what can we, as white women, do to support women of colour and ensure they have strong allies in the workplace?
Despite the agenda to advance diversity and inclusion, women are still underrepresented at all levels of upper management
Some ways you can be a proactive ally are through mentorships and sponsorships, asking what can be done to make workplace experiences better for Women of Colour, speaking up when discrimination is seen and giving proper credit where it’s due. As managers you should use exit interviews to find out why women are leaving and foster safe spaces for Women of Colour to network themselves. You can also extend invites to social events and offer positive feedback, because investing time and effort in a person means they are a valued employee.
How can companies support Women of Colour?
Companies need to focus on DEI during the hiring process, but also include it in performance reviews so that everyone is held accountable (from the top down) for progress on diversity goals. Companies also need to track who is hired and promoted to determine if women, in particular Women of Colour, are being hired and promoted at the same rate as other employees. Allyship, anti-racism courses and unconscious bias training should be standard practice. And finally, the “broken rung” needs serious fixing — meaning promoting Women of Colour from entry-level positions to managers helps them climb the proverbial ladder, so they can start taking their rightful place in C-suite positions.
Cultivating an inclusive workplace leads to happy employees, successful teams, higher profitability and, let’s face it, a better world to live in.
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