Women continue to be a growing portion of the modern workforce, often competing with male counterparts for positions and advancement in a workplace that traditionally favors the promotion and success of men. The largest and most numerous of these workplace barriers are set against women of color. These workplace barriers have led to issues, struggles, and feelings that can be difficult for an outsider to realize or understand. 

According to The Fawcett Society, non-white women continue to be overrepresented in entry-level and junior positions and underrepresented in administration and leadership positions. The complex and often ugly history of race and gender relations plays a significant role in the development of this situation. In a recent survey report from The Trades Union Congress, 31% of ethnic minority women felt their race was used as an excuse to deny promotions. And 45% believed white workers received better opportunities when offered work.

Women in Leadership

Unfortunately for women of color, the barriers faced in the workplace are numerous and more difficult than those faced by men of color and white women. When workplaces are built to favor white men, they subject women of color to a “double jeopardy” effect of being not white and not male. This unique workplace experience can be difficult for white women and men of color to understand. 

For example, the relational distance between women of color and white men can prove disadvantageous when it comes to receiving fair evaluations and a continuing perception that women of color are unqualified for senior leadership positions in an organization.  

Racial and Religious Discrimination

These patterns of inequality are longstanding and have become systemic, routinely pushing women of color towards lower level, less financially rewarding positions with fewer opportunities for advancement. Those opportunities for advancement are also more likely to go to men or white women despite a similar level of skill and experience because they more closely align to the workplace archetype. 

The topic of racial inequality in the US is an ongoing and emotionally charged social issue. For many companies, the subject is too hot and controversial to engage for fear of negative press. Instead, we often see companies address other barriers in the workplace for different groups, such as discrimination surrounding gender, sexuality, and age. Addressing these issues without also addressing barriers of race continues to widen the gap in opportunities faced by people of color.

Another hot topic companies tend to stay away from is religion. Often we can add Christianity, specifically Protestantism, to the white-male-centric workplace barriers. Women of color who practice Islam and wear a hijab find themselves under increased discrimination for employment and advancement opportunities.

Education and Youth

An important point to remember is that women of color do not begin to face these barriers in the workplace. They start early in life, and the systemic issues can dissuade women of color and prevent them from reaching their full potential before entering the workforce. Significant factors continuing this trend are the same workplace barriers for women of color in the professional world. These barriers keep more women of color from succeeding and advancing in education, and being taught by educators that often do not look or sound like them. For a more in-depth look at barriers facing women of color in education, see this article from The Conversation

Workplace Barriers: Microaggressions

A microaggression by itself is like a single drop of water. But, continued and consistent microaggressions, like water, can erode even the toughest edifice. The small slights and innocent comments over time take an emotional toll on anyone, and unfortunately, women of color have to deal with more microaggressions than most. 

These bite-sized moments of discrimination can lead to anger and even more severe psychological issues, like depression. Moreover, these Microaggressions invoke a reaction and distract from the recipient’s productivity and problem-solving abilities. Over time this can create a dip in work performance and give another unnecessary barrier for women of color to success and advancement.

Microaggressions are dangerous because they typically align closely with people’s implicit biases and can often go unnoticed. They reinforce stereotypes, perceptions, and assumptions that unconsciously influence the thoughts and actions of those around you. For example, the tech industry has shown a heavy bias towards white and Asian men for a long time. Women and non-Asian minorities were often seen as “not belonging” to the culture of the technology industry. Cultural, unconscious biases like these are fertile ground for microaggressions. See this article from Wired for more about the race and gender issues in the tech sector.

Professionalism, Culture Fit, and Language Workplace Barriers

Professionalism, while an essential element to companies, can be a loaded term. For instance, the standards for professionalism often reflect the culture and values of those at the top. When that group is skewed in favor of older, typically white men, that will be the standard for what is and is not professional in the workplace. Professionalism encompasses personal appearance: hair, clothing, accessories, piercings, tattoos, etc., as well as how a person speaks, the language they use, and their mannerisms.

Often we hear these ideas summed up as “culture fit” when discussing job seekers and current employees. The concept of culture fit being the organization’s reflection of how an ideal employee or team member should look and act. Rarely is a single idea diverse in scope. It is easy to imagine a company where 70% of the employees are white, and 70% of the employees are male, that the company’s ideal image of an employee is not a woman of color. When speaking about culture fit, some people use wording like “they make me laugh” or “they seem like someone I would enjoy spending time with outside of work.”

For women of color to make inroads in situations where they don’t fit the traditional culture, they are often forced to put on a mask or work personality. They need to learn and feign interest in traditionally masculine interests and be current on white-focused media and social topics to ease coworkers and “fit in” with their work’s culture. But, it doesn’t stop there. In these situations, women of color often need to change their physical appearance and communication style to find success.

Another significant barrier to people of color is language. Having a non-American accent or having English as a second language puts a woman of color at a severe disadvantage regarding promotion opportunities and socioeconomic success. Sometimes this can make communication more difficult, but the accent is often equated to differences in value and culture. Again, keeping women of color from matching a company’s idea of professionalism, despite accents being normal. Language continues to be another barrier in the workplace and form of discrimination. 

A good practice to measure your unconscious bias is by placing a different type of person, perhaps someone closer to yourself in the same situation. If the candidate in front of you was a white man or women from a foreign country would they be subjected to the same level of prejudice?
Ask yourself if a white European, Australian, or South African man or woman would be treated in the same fashion.

Even more problematic are the regional and cultural variances in English within the US. Men and women of color often receive criticism for not sounding “white enough.” The loaded bias that comes with this is that they are uneducated or too lazy to learn the “proper” use of English, creating a workplace barrier to meeting many companies’ ideas of professionalism. 

Senior Leadership Difficulties

According to the 2020 “Women in the Workplace” report by McKinsey & Company, women of color are underrepresented at 4% of executive roles in US businesses, even though they make up 18% of the workforce. White women are better represented, accounting for 19% of executive roles while representing 30% of the workforce. 

One of the most challenging issues for women of color in leadership positions is the lack of peers to discuss the unique challenges and workplace barriers facing them as women of color in a leadership role. That is why peer advisory groups, like EWF’s Executive Forums, are such a crucial resource women can use to find female peers with diverse backgrounds to help them address their challenges. These groups provide an environment with supportive members who allow them to socialize and promote greater inclusion among all participants. 

Changing the Dynamic

For decades, women with diverse backgrounds have not been able to enter and move through the leadership pipeline of US companies. Some companies have framed this issue as a lack of skilled, experienced, “professional” talent. As noted, there is a big difference between a lack of qualified talent and people who have not been provided opportunities based on a manager’s bias and their idea of professionalism.

Equality for women is also still an issue. More and more, we see that, even in strategic decision-making positions, there are fewer female leaders than before, and this problem affects every sector with greater responsibilities as well. In a world in which women are still fighting for equality, it’s time they take the reins. Women like Regina Granados De Ita have proven talent and competence that can go hand in hand with power – now more than ever is an opportunity to do just this. 

“Women have long been underrepresented in positions of power, and today the women I work with are leading our team to success. They inspire me every day.”

Regina Granados de Ita, CEO of LeasePlan Mexico

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is an important topic that deserves more discussion. Diversity in the workplace tends to lead to a competitive advantage, increasing business revenue and profitability. Diverse senior leadership especially affects performance. Firms with executives from different ethnic backgrounds had an impressive 33% higher likelihood of profitability while outperforming their less-diverse industry peers by 21%, according to McKinsey’s Leading Through Diversity (2020).

Research studies like those mentioned above have proven diversity at all levels win. They show that companies with diverse teams beat out other organizations because they are willing to pool resources better than pursuing individual goals separately. It is essential to have a set of rules and procedures to reduce or eliminate unconscious gender and racial biases. For instance, review the practices and policies your company uses to identify, develop, and promote talent. How can unconscious bias affect the process, and how can you remove the subconscious prejudices that creep into the workplace?

The Future of Women

The future of women in the workforce is promising. Women are projected to make up the majority of US workers by 2060, with women leading many industries like healthcare and tech. Creating a culture of inclusivity begins by accepting and appreciating the diversity within your employees. Organizations need to create an environment that fosters communication between coworkers who thrive on collaboration, transparency, and communication. All this can be enhanced with diverse perspectives and placing the benefit of employees ahead of the company’s bottom line.

There are many barriers to workplace advancement for women of color. However, with the right tools and resources, women of color can overcome these obstacles. Such challenges can be addressed with unconscious bias training and an increased focus on hiring qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds to bring new skill sets into the company.

If you are looking for a way to begin changing the dynamic for your company. See EWF’s corporate programming, offering turnkey services from lunch and learns and speaking opportunities to assistance setting up Employee Resource Groups and hosting internal leadership development programs.