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Three Ways To Support And Empower Underrepresented Women In The Workplace

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Certified diversity executive, host of Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox podcast and Head of Content for The Diversity Movement.

Growing up as a Black girl in the 70s and 80s, I rarely saw myself reflected in books, magazines or movies. When I did see Black women on screen, they often played support roles rather than the lead, and their characters often experienced tragic conditions that were almost never overcome over the course of the story. 

False racial narratives — like the ever-popular trope of Black women as sidekicks or downtrodden figures — become part of everyone’s unconscious bias. Even more unfortunate, these stories can also be pervasive for those who are being discriminated against. Certainly, we’re not immune from internalizing the narratives people tell about us, and over time, their bias can become a part of how we see ourselves.  

As a result of these destructive narratives surrounding Black women and what they can (or can’t) accomplish, even the most successful of us seem to question our achievements or ambition to aspire for more. For instance, in preparation for this season of my podcast, Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of highly successful, well-respected, culturally diverse women professionals. There was a consistent thread of imposter syndrome that they shared having to overcome, despite everything they accomplished. I suspected that, like me, they had felt the sting of microaggressions or the disappointment of being passed over for promotions or major projects in their professional pasts. 

Black women face workplace discrimination for everything from our hairstyles to our names. We’re more likely to face everyday discrimination, less likely to be promoted to managerial positions and also less likely to receive support from leadership. McKinsey and Company’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report confirms these persistent statistics. After years of enduring these struggles, often in silence, many of us are left with internalized narratives that tell us we’re not enough. It’s no wonder that we are less likely to put ourselves forward for jobs and promotions, especially when we don’t see ourselves as being proficient at every aspect of requirements listed in a job description. 

Many underrepresented professionals do not feel empowered to share their goals and ambitions with supervisors, sponsors and mentors or to speak up when they see inequity for fear of career retribution. From the gender pay gap — which is even bigger for underrepresented women — to the lack of equal leadership opportunities or promotions, these hurdles are pushing more and more Black women into entrepreneurship, where they can create their own playing fields for success. 

That entrepreneurial spirit and initiative, along with other professional skill sets and character traits, could be and should be better leveraged in the traditional workplace so that underrepresented women are able to scale within corporate environments with equitable opportunity.

However, to provide that confidence, organizations need to commit to creating a culture where people feel hopeful for what they can accomplish and supported in pursuing bigger goals. Here are my recommendations for how your company can create a more supportive and empowering culture. 

Expand diversity in leadership. As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” That means, if there’s no one who looks like you in a leadership role at your company, it’s hard to envision yourself getting that far. Businesses must make a conscious effort to hire more diverse leaders and develop multicultural talent within the company through intentional mentorship, executive sponsorship and clear career paths. Leaders whom underrepresented employees can identify with will make the path to the C-suite seem more achievable.

Challenge diverse employees. Is everyone at your company getting the same opportunities to grow through new projects and responsibilities? Are you giving your underrepresented colleagues space to reach their full potential, or are you inadvertently holding them back by under-assigning them? Don’t underestimate your diverse employees, and don’t be afraid to throw big projects their way. In fact, you can pay your privilege forward, by opening the door for underrepresented employees to do great work and reap the rewards.

Support the success of underrepresented individuals. Whether it’s investing in a talent pipeline that prepares diverse candidates for board membership or simply offering free career advice to someone in your network, we can all find ways of supporting underrepresented people’s success. Too many diverse employees are forced to find their own way without that support.

We must begin to recognize and dismantle the false narratives that have made it harder for underrepresented people to achieve their full potential. Why? Because when mainstream narratives tell professionals who are women, culturally diverse, have disabilities, are neurodiverse or any other diverse identity that they aren’t good enough to be truly successful and that they don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved, then everyone internalizes that message. We consume it, we digest it and it becomes a part of how we move through the world. 

Anyone can call themselves an ally, but there is a substantive difference between hoping for the best for people and providing active, intentional support and opportunities. A recent study from McKinsey shared that, while underrepresented women say the single most important action an ally can take is advocating for new opportunities for them, less than half of the survey respondents of all genders confirmed they are even giving credit to those women for their work and ideas. 

McKinsey calls this “the allyship gap” and points out that “although White employees recognize that speaking out against discrimination is critical, they are less likely to recognize the importance of more proactive, sustained steps” toward equity.

As it relates to social narratives, allyship means proactively telling new stories — and highlighting hidden parts of our history together — that show the impact, power, fullness and innate capacity for excellence that all people have. Yes, it means new perspectives, but it also means giving sustained credit to underrepresented people for their contributions and their greatness in your everyday life. Our personal narratives are always in progress after all, and there is always room to edit what we believe by internalizing new stories about ourselves and about people who are like us. 


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