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4 Obstacles Holding Black Women Back at Work

How to support one of the least supported demographics in our workforce

Woman waiting for an interview
Photo courtesy of Amani Nation

Gender diversity is often discussed with broad strokes: All women need this and all women need that in order to succeed.

However, women as a group are diverse, and although any company’s commitment to women’s advancement is worth celebrating, achieving gender equality requires a more in-depth understanding of what women of all demographics deal with on the day to day. 

InHerSight set out to paint a picture of how just one demographic, Black women, experiences our workforce. We pulled together studies and data from all over to capture the unique obstacles Black women face in order to help you better support one of the least supported subsets of your workforce. These are four of the most common obstacles your Black women employees (and future employees) struggle to overcome today.

4 obstacles holding Black women back at work

1. Exclusion from networks

The stats on the importance of networking in landing new jobs and advancing in the workplace vary, with some surveys finding networking boosts the chances of 60 percent of job seekers, while others, like one 3,000-person survey, claim that number is upwards of 85 percent. Despite this far-ranging data, however, surveys agree on one point: Networking is crucial to successful job seeking and upward mobility. 

For Black women, networking opportunities are severely lacking, first, because they are women and, second, because they are people of color. As Catalyst states in their report on Black women’s advancement at work:

“The lack of fit perceived by African-American women appears to be rooted in the ‘double outsider’ status African-American women have, of being dissimilar from white men (traditionally the most powerful group in organizations) based on both race and gender.”

In other words, Black men and white women enjoy more privilege because they have at least one demographic tie to white men. Black women have none.

Unfamiliar with this concept? Read more about intersectionality here.

As a result of this doubled exclusion, Black women are often shut out from the informal networks that help other people find jobs, mentors, and sponsors. In fact, Great Places to Work found in their 2019 Women in the Workplace report that out of all demographics of women, Black women are the most likely to feel excluded in the workplace at all levels of management.  

And their feelings are valid. In the legal field, for instance, the American Bar Association has found that 66 percent Black women have been excluded from both formal and informal networking opportunities, while only 6 percent of white women have been. This example is indicative of widespread lack of access across industries. 

Black women also report the least connection with senior leaders, which affects their advancement opportunities. They seldom have informal interactions such as casual conversions or lunch meetings, and because senior leaders are often gatekeepers and sponsors, this lack of access puts Black women at a unique disadvantage compared to other demographics.

2. Pay inequity

According to a 2019 InHerSight survey, salary satisfaction, or whether an employee feels they’re paid fairly compared to their peers and for the amount of work they do, is one of the top four predictors of women’s overall satisfaction at work. Great Places to Work also found that compared to men, women are 1.5 times more likely to say increased pay would improve their workplace experience. Clearly, fair and comparable compensation is a must-have for working women. 

Yet women still face pay disparities compared to men—and Black women even more so. In 2018, the median annual earnings for all women was 81.6 percent of men’s earnings. Black women specifically were paid only 61.8 percent of white men’s earnings ($38,036 vs. $61,576), up slightly from 61.3 percent in 2017. This means Black women need to work seven extra months to achieve the same pay as white men.

Worse even, the Economic Policy Institute found that pay inequity for Black women exists at every level of education. When comparing the average wages of Black women and white men, Black women earn less than white men at every level.

3. Lack of worker protections

Black women, regardless of age, marital status, or presence of children in the home, have always held the highest labor force participation rate among female workers in the United States.

In 2018, Black women (age 20 and older) had the highest labor force participation at 62.4 percent (the total female labor force participation that year was 62.7 percent), followed by Hispanic women at 59.4 percent, Asian women at 58.6 percent, and white women at 57.6 percent.

Despite this, Black women have long been excluded from worker protection policies. New Deal minimum wage, overtime pay, and collective bargaining legislation excluded the main sectors where Black women worked—domestic service and farming. Nina Banks, associate professor of economics at Bucknell University, writes this

"Black women’s labor market position is the result of employer practices and government policies that disadvantaged Black women relative to white women and men. Negative representations of Black womanhood have reinforced these discriminatory practices and policies. Since the era of slavery, the dominant view of Black women has been that they should be workers, a view that contributed to their devaluation as mothers with caregiving needs at home. African-American women’s unique labor market history and current occupational status reflects these beliefs and practices."

That legacy continues today. Black women are concentrated in low-paying, inflexible service occupations that lack employer-provided retirement plans, health insurance, paid sick and maternity leave, and paid vacations. According to the Economic Policy Institute, over a third (36 percent) of Black women workers lack paid sick leave. 

4. Harder and slower in promotions

Women of color experience more obstacles to career advancement and promotion than men and white women. The representation of women of color at all levels is significantly lower than those demographics; so, too, is the promotion rate from one level to the next. 

This is a pipeline issue. Although people often connect women’s halted career advancement to a glass ceiling, the biggest obstacle to women’s progression is actually at the first step up to manager, a phenomenon known as the broken rung. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This means more women than men are stuck at the entry level. Black women are among the stuck. For every 100 men hired into manager roles, only 64 Black women are hired. For every 100 men promoted into manager roles, only 60 Black women are promoted.

We see this most noticeably reflected today in the most prominent positions available. Women of color, and Black women in particular, have little presence in C-suite. Although companies have expanded women’s executive presence, with the share of women in the C-suite ticking up from 17 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2019, only 4 percent are women of color, and only 1 percent are Black women. As of November 2020, no Black woman is serving as CEO for Fortune 500 or S&P 500 company.

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