LeanIn.Org recently released a new report, The State of Black Women in Corporate America, that shows Black women are having a markedly worse experience at work than white women and other women of color. The report offers an in-depth look at Black women’s experiences in the workplace, and at the systemic barriers holding them back. It also outlines specific steps companies can take to prioritize advancing and supporting Black women.
The State of Black Women in Corporate America draws on several years of insights from Lean In and McKinsey & Company’s annual Women in the Workplace study, along with recent research conducted by LeanIn.Org in partnership with SurveyMonkey. To our knowledge, Women in the Workplace is the largest study on women’s experiences in corporate America, which makes The State of Black Women in Corporate America the most comprehensive report on Black women’s experiences at work.
The release of The State of Black Women in Corporate America coincides with Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which marks how far Black women had to work into 2020 to catch up with what white men earned in 2019 alone. On average, Black women earn 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women. That adds up to almost a million dollars over the course of a Black woman’s career.
“The pay gap is a huge injustice, and this report shows that it’s just one part of a much bigger problem,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and co-founder of LeanIn.Org. “It’s critical that we take a hard look at what’s happening in the workplace and do more to advance Black women. The research is clear, women are having a worse experience at work than men. Women of color are having a worse experience than white women. And Black women in particular are having the worst experience of all.”
As the report shows, Black women encounter inequality and discrimination at work on a regular basis, in areas ranging from hiring and promotions, to support from leadership, to casual interactions with colleagues. For every 100 entry-level men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted. Almost 60% of Black women have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader. And Black women are more likely to have their competence underestimated or questioned—more than a quarter of Black women have heard a colleague express surprise at their language skills or other abilities.
“In this moment, with a national conversation underway about the systemic injustices Black people face, we must take a hard look at what’s happening in the workplace,” added LeanIn.Org’s Managing Director Raena Saddler. “For too many Black women, work is yet another place where we encounter inequality and discrimination. Our report shares clear, concrete solutions companies can implement today to ensure there is a work environment where Black women are represented and empowered to thrive.”
The report emphasizes that companies must adopt an intersectional approach to diversity efforts, taking both gender and race into account and tracking toward targets that are specifically focused on Black women. Otherwise, Black women will continue to be overlooked.
“The only way to make the workplace equal for women is to center on the women who are most marginalized,” said LeanIn.Org co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas. “If employers want to do better by women, they must do better by Black women.”
The report recommends a number of concrete steps companies can take, including:
Set representation targets by gender and race combined. Only 7% of companies currently do this, which means most aren’t setting specific goals around advancing Black women and other women of color. In addition to setting targets, companies should track hiring and promotion outcomes by both gender and race to make sure women of color are getting equal opportunities to advance.
Hold leaders accountable for progress by incorporating diversity targets into management expectations and performance reviews, and by offering meaningful rewards for success; right now, fewer than one in five companies offers financial incentives for senior leaders who meet diversity targets.
Require diverse final slates for hiring and promotions. A diverse slate includes two or more candidates from any underrepresented group. Research shows that when only one woman or one Black person is included in a slate of finalists, there is statistically zero chance they will be hired—but when two such candidates are included, the chance that one of them will be hired rises dramatically.
Use consistent, objective hiring and promotion rubrics. Evaluators need to understand the rubric and criteria for the role before the review process begins, to ensure that all candidates are evaluated against the same standard. Using a quantitative rating system—such as a five-point scale—has been shown to reduce bias as compared to relying on open-ended questions.
Provide comprehensive antiracism and allyship training. In addition to teaching employees to recognize sexism and racism, this training should emphasize tangible ways that employees can practice allyship, such as speaking out against discrimination and advocating for opportunities for Black women colleagues.
Acknowledge events that impact the Black community. For a workplace to feel inclusive, it’s important that all employees demonstrate awareness of events—such as police brutality—that disproportionately impact the Black community. When these events occur, leaders should take concrete steps to show support and ensure that Black employees have space to process their understandable rage and grief.
Key findings from The State of Black Women in Corporate America:
Black women are severely underrepresented in management roles: for every 100 entry-level men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted. Black women are severely underrepresented in corporate America, especially in leadership roles: they make up 7.4% of the U.S. population but hold only 1% of C-Suite positions, while white men make up about 35% of the population and hold almost 70% of C-Suite positions. One reason for this is a “broken rung” at the first step up to manager. For every 100 entry-level men who are promoted to manager, just 58 Black women are promoted, despite the fact that Black women are similarly interested in leading and ask for promotions at about the same rates.
Black women face a steeper path to advancement in part because they don’t get as much support from leadership: 59% have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader. Less than a quarter of Black women feel like they have the sponsorship (informal support senior employees give promising junior employees) that they need to advance their career, and 59% have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader. Black women also get less support from their direct managers—compared to white women, they are less likely to report that their manager showcases their work, advocates for new opportunities for them, or helps them navigate organizational politics.
Black women encounter a wide range of microaggressions at work: More than a quarter have heard colleagues express surprise at their language skills or other abilities. Microaggressions are comments and actions that subtly demean or dismiss someone based on their gender, race, or other aspects of their identity. Since Black women face both racism and sexism, they experience a wide range of microaggressions. They are nearly two and a half times more likely than white women—and more than three times more likely than men—to hear someone in their workplace express surprise about their language skills or other abilities. These insults and invalidations take a toll; research shows that women who experience microaggressions are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their job than those who don’t.
Fifty four percent of Black women are often the only, or one of the only, Black people in the room at work. Black women who are “Onlys” are having an especially difficult experience. They are very aware of the fact that they may be seen as representatives of their race, and they are more likely than Onlys of other racial and ethnic groups to feel as though their individual successes and failures will reflect on people like them. This leads to a sense that they are constantly under scrutiny: Black women who are Onlys often report feeling closely watched, on guard, and under increased pressure to perform. Black women who are “Onlys” frequently report feeling closely watched, on guard, and under increased pressure to perform.
Many white employees aren’t stepping up as allies to Black women. More than 80 percent of white women and men say they see themselves as allies to people of color at work. But less than half of Black women feel that they personally have strong allies at work—and barely a quarter think it’s mostly accurate that Black women have strong allies in their workplace. Challenging racism is a basic act of allyship, but even though most white employees believe they are allies, only 40% have ever spoken out against racism at work.
In spite of the obstacles they face, Black women are motivated to lead and improve their workplaces. Black women are substantially more likely than white women—and just as likely as white men—to say that they are interested in becoming top executives. And among employees who want to be top executives, Black women are more likely than men and women overall to be motivated by a desire to positively influence company culture or to be role models for others like them.
To read the full report, visit leanin.org/state-of-black-women.