Oped: It’s time for White female executives to break inequality barriers for Black women at work

Steve Debenport | E+ | Getty Images

The of Amy Cooper racist altercation with a Black man in Central Park was infuriating and shameful — but it should not be surprising. White women like Amy Cooper (a democrat who donated to the Obama campaign) have a long history of simultaneously advocating for a more equal and democratic society, while perpetuating systemic racism by wielding her “victim status” as a White woman. There has been a fundamental flaw in the feminist movement from the beginning, when it prioritized the interests of middle- and upper-class college-educated White women who sought social equality with middle- and upper-class White men, ignoring the larger needs and marginalization of Black women.

Feminism was stolen a long time ago, and White women need to acknowledge this fact or else we stand to perpetuate the very inequality we are advocating against. A good place to start is in the workplace. White women need to get to know the barriers Black women encounter at work and use their white privilege to remove these obstacles — after all, isn’t this what White women have been asking from men for decades?

Decades after the feminist movement began, women continue to battle for a seat at leadership table. Fix-the-women solutions like power dressing, assertiveness training and women-focused networking programs traditionally have been the answer to the leadership gap. But these “lean in” solutions were never designed to advance equality for all women, just the select few White women who were better able to fit into the White male–dominated culture.

There is a tendency to consider women’s experiences in the workplace as the same. The problem is, this tends to reflect the experience of White women, who make up the dominant group of women leaders in corporations today. Sure, White women face many barriers at work because of sexism, but they still have their whiteness in common with most of the White men in positions of power. Black women who want to advance the corporate ladder, meanwhile, need to battle both sexism and racism — as well as the interplay between these forms of inequality at work.

Amy Cooper making phone call in Central Park

Christian Cooper | Facebook

Despite Black women having greater aspirations to lead and often outworking and outperforming their White counterparts, research finds that they experience numerous barriers to advancement, including greater negative stereotypes, discrimination, prejudice and unfair treatment when it comes to promotions, training, advancement and support.

Livia Johnson, an organization leader for Warriors in the Garden holds a megaphones as she helps to lead a group of hundreds of protesters in chants as they march from Trump International Hotel and Tower in Columbus Circle through Times Square and down 5th Avenue.

Ira L. Black | Getty Images

Simply having a racial minority status at work makes Black women more visible, and so they are scrutinized in a way that White women and men are not — the term for this is “hypervisibility.” Black women work under a magnifying glass and must be careful not to reinforce multiple and sometimes conflicting stereotypes — for example, they must be confident and assertive in a way that does not trigger gendered or racist stereotypes. Something as simple as speaking up carries with it the burden of triggering the “angry Black woman” stereotype.

Black women also face a performance tax as they work to a consistently high standard as to ensure they do not confirm people’s negative stereotypes related to their race or gender. Black women do this by going above and beyond their role requirements and consistently exceeding expectations. Black women who are the “first” or “only” in a work environment often feel like their performance represents their entire minority group and are placed under tremendous pressure to perform and prove their worth. Black women are also more harshly penalized when they make a mistake.

A 2018 research study examining the experiences of 59 Black women in corporate America found that when Black women make an error, they are perceived more negatively compared to their white counterparts, and the mistake is unfairly used to highlight how much they do not fit the White male leadership ideal.

While Black women routinely perform to a high standard, they are unlikely to receive recognition for it. The same study found that Black women often feel their performance is overlooked, disregarded or forgotten. To cope with hypervisibility, Black women must remain constantly alert to potential forms of discrimination, insults or bias at work. This heightened awareness takes a mental and emotional toll — a phenomenon known as the emotional tax, which has negative implications on performance, stress levels and well-being.

A protester holds up their homemade sign that says, “We Will NEVER Stop Fighting for BLACK Women” with a picture of the black power fist on the sign during a protest at Trump Tower. This was part of the Black Women’s Empowerment March that started at Trump Tower and marched to Gracie Mansion.

Ira L. Black | Corbis | Getty Images

When it comes to the support, mentorship and alliances that leaders offer one another at work as a key to advancement, there is a pecking order that is built to favor the familiar. Because men make up the dominant group at work, they are more likely to receive help and support from other men, compared to white women. However, White women are more likely to receive support and mentorship from White men and women when compared to women of color. This in-group favoritism serves to isolate all women leaders at work. But for Black women, this barrier leads to lower promotion rates and increased pressure to assimilate, compared to their White female counterparts.

These barriers are not one-off experiences. They can occur throughout Black women’s careers, making it harder and harder to advance. White women play a critical role in dismantling these inequalities, starting with getting to know the barriers Black women encounter. Knowing how to spot these barriers ensures that White women can identify how to spend their white privilege to remove these inequalities. They can speak out against the performance tax Black women endure in promotion or pay discussions. They can amplify Black women’s achievements to ensure they receive the long overdue recognition for their high performance. They can simply pay attention to gendered racist stereotypes at work, like when Black women are penalized for displaying assertiveness or anger. And they can commit to engage and include a wide range of colleagues in all aspects of corporate life, from meetings to networking, mentoring and social activities.

These everyday actions are how White women start to model the very behaviors they are asking White men to engage in. It is also how White women begin to account for upholding a system of inequality, through compliance, conformity and silence, while claiming to advocate against it.

 — By Michelle P. King, gender-equality expert and author of “The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work” 

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join the most influential voices disrupting the next decade of work at the next CNBC @Work Summit this October.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *