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Women of color in the workplace: why representation matters

Women are half of the workforce and hold more college degrees than men, but they remain underrepresented and underpaid at every level—with women of color struggling the most.

Amy Rigby

Women of color have long fought to overcome additional challenges when it comes to employment. Despite their efforts, they still face job inequalities that white employees and their male counterparts often aren’t even aware of.

Are you interested in what your organization can do to support women of color in the workplace? In this article, we’ll discuss the obstacles women of color face, how it impacts employee well-being, and what you can do to ensure a more equitable work environment for all employees.

Women of color in the workplace: 9 statistics you need to know

  • As of December 2020, women made up 49.7% of the nonfarm workforce.1
  • Every year for more than 30 years, women have earned more college degrees than men. Since 1982, women have outpaced men in terms of new college degrees conferred. Currently, women make up the majority of people receiving college degrees at every level—associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral.2
  • Across all levels of education, on average, women are paid lower wages than men. The average hourly wage for a man with an advanced degree is $52.38, while a woman of the same education level is paid an average hourly wage of USD $38.64.3
  • Women are just as likely as men to ask for pay raises—but are 25% less likely to receive them. While previous studies have concluded that women don’t ask for raises as often as men, a 2014 survey of 4,600 employees in Australia found that women do ask for pay raises as often as men do; they’re just less likely to get them.4
  • Women of color are the least represented group in leadership positions. Despite comprising half of the workforce, women are not even one-quarter of the C-Suite. White men make up 35% of the entry-level workforce and 66% of the C-Suite, while white women make up 29% of the entry-level workforce and 19% of the C-Suite. But women of color fare the worst in numbers—they’re 18% of entry-level positions but only 3% of the C-Suite.
  • Compared to women and men of other races, Black women are the least likely to feel supported by their manager.5
  • Women, especially Black women, experience workplace microaggressions at a higher rate than men. For example, 20% of women have been mistaken for someone at a much lower level at work, while only 10% of men can say the same. For Black women, 22% have been mistaken for someone at a much lower level than them at work.5
  • Women of color were hit hardest by joblessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.6
  • When there’s a failure at an organization, people tend to judge Black women leaders more harshly and see them as “less typical leaders” than both white women and Black men. In something known as the “double jeopardy effect,” Black women may suffer setbacks due to being part of two marginalized groups: women and people of color.7

Employee well-being: Common microaggressions in the workplace for women of color

Rather than blatant, outright racism, women of color in the workplace continue to face a more insidious and subtle form of discrimination: microaggressions. The term “microaggression” was coined by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in his 1970 book The Black Seventies, in which he, writing about microaggressions, states:

"Most offensive actions are not gross and crippling. They are subtle and stunning. The enormity of the complications they cause can be appreciated only when one considers that these subtle blows are delivered incessantly. ... The cumulative effect to the victim and to the victimizer is of an unimaginable magnitude."

Microaggressions can be tricky to understand and difficult to curtail, which can lead to the disenfranchisement of the experiences of women of color. By their definition, they are small, distinct experiences. They can be verbal, behavioral, or even environmental assaults that make marginalized groups feel even more marginalized. Because they are “small,” it’s easy for outsiders to ignore them or diminish their impact.

But the harmful effects of racial microaggressions are real and result in diminished opportunities for advancement in the modern workplace, as well as overall employee well-being

  • College students’ common experiences of racial microaggressions deter them from pursuing careers in STEM. This is especially true for Black women.8
  • African-American educators in higher education who experience microaggressions at work have lower job satisfaction.9
  • Encountering racial microaggressions negatively impacts mental health. A 2014 study in the Journal of Counseling & Development found that racial microaggressions were linked to depression and negative effects in the people who experienced them.10

Examples of microaggressions in the workplace that women of color might deal with include:

  • An Asian woman being told she “speaks really good English,” despite being born and raised in the U.S.
  • A Black woman being told she’s “well-spoken” or “articulate,” as though that’s an unexpected attribute.
  • A Latina woman being mistaken for the secretary even though she’s the manager.

While microaggressions may be well-intentioned, their impact is negative: leaving women of color with the ever-present reminder that they’re still seen as “less than” or “other” no matter how hard they work. It's vital that the experiences of women are taken seriously so that women of color feel their negative experiences are not hindering their career growth.

It's important that organizations provide psychological safety and cultivate a positive culture that supports racial equality.

How you can support women of color in the workplace

Talk about it.

Unless you are a woman of color, it’s likely you don’t know the full scope of inequalities and challenges they face. Open up a discussion about it on your team, and encourage everyone to examine their own biases. We all have unconscious biases that, by their very nature, we are unaware of.

It doesn’t have to be formal or lengthy. For example, you can give a presentation about the challenges women of color face at your next all-hands meeting and outline the steps you’re taking to address inequality in your organization. It’s also a great idea to invite others’ input and ideas.

Create written guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior.

Dr. Jia Wang, a Texas A&M University professor who studies workplace incivility, suggests creating "behavior statements.”

"If I was holding a workshop session, I would have [an employer] sit down and brainstorm as many statements as they could,” Dr. Wang told ScienceDaily. “I would have them think about things they have observed and experienced and what they would consider uncivil.”

Document racial discrimination.

In your employee handbook, outline a straightforward process for reporting violations or filing grievances. Document the process every employee should follow if they experience or witness discrimination against women of color in the workplace.

Enforce policies that protect women employees.

Setting policies is nice, but you need to ensure that you enforce them. Once you decide on the process for handling grievances, follow through on investigations and consequences to make progress toward gender equality.

Modern workplaces are inclusive workplaces.

Audit your organization for inequalities toward women in your workplace. Start by analyzing how much time and resources are being given to white men and white women in your organization versus women of color. Do what you can to rectify any differences.

Also, conduct a pay audit to determine if there are women of color on your team who are getting paid less than your male employees with the same capabilities. For example, if you see a pattern that senior-level women of color continue to be paid less than men, this is your clue to dig deeper. Is the pay gap reasonable or are there biases women in leadership are experiencing? If you find an unfair wage gap, correct it.

Actively recruit women of color to your organization.

Women of color in the workplace face a myriad of challenges that white men do not. Because of this, it can be harder for them to get noticed. It can be harder for women of color to even pursue their dream careers because, as we saw earlier, microaggressions in college can limit their career development and discourage them from pursuing STEM.

That’s why it’s essential to actively recruit women of color. Now, this does not mean hiring a woman of color simply because she is a woman of color (AKA a “token hire”)—but because of all the talent and experience she has to bring that often gets overlooked.

You don't have to take bold steps to support career growth for women of color. Sometimes it's as simple as looking at the barriers to advancement and rethinking standard procedures.

Need a real-life example? Canva, the makers of a graphic design platform, ramped up their diversity and inclusion efforts by doing things like:

  • Proactively reaching out to candidates with the right expertise and backgrounds who otherwise might not apply
  • Ensuring that interview panels were diverse
  • Adjusting their job description wording to be less male-focused
  • Setting diversity goals and targets

By thinking outside of the box, Canva created a new strategy with a focus on their commitment to gender diversity.

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Representation of women of color in the workplace: Looking forward

In the past several decades, women in the workplace have made great strides—but we still have a lot of work ahead of us to ensure women have a key role in the workforce, especially those in minority groups. The outcomes for women are not equitable when someone with the same level of education, experience, and skill sets as their white male counterpart receives lower pay, gets promoted less, and can’t snag a leadership position.

While manager-level positions, HR departments, and C-suite leadership traditionally set organizational politics, we all play a critical role in creating an inclusive company culture.

So what can you do to foster inclusive behavior? Pick one of the suggestions in this article for supporting women of color in the workplace. Talk to your colleagues. Take a good hard look at how your organization operates. Have difficult discussions with current women leaders and entry-level women employees. Listen to what women of color say. about their workplace experiences. And make those tough changes. Only by doing these things can we all pave the way for a more just, ethical, and prosperous workplace for the future generation of women leaders.


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