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Women of color in the workplace: The persistent obstacles and how you can rise to meet them

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.

Women of color have long fought to overcome unique challenges when it comes to employment. Despite their efforts, they still face job inequalities that their white and 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 and what you can do to ensure a more equitable work environment for all employees.

Table of contents

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 $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. [5]
  • 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]

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. By their definition, they are small. 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.

  • College students’ 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 affect 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 still 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.

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 it at your next all-hands meeting and outline the steps you’re taking to fight 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 the process every employee should follow if they experience or witness discrimination against women of color in the workplace. 

In your employee handbook, outline a clear process for reporting violations or filing grievances.

Create and enforce consequences for breaches of appropriate workplace behavior.

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.

Audit your organization for inequalities toward women in your workplace.

Start by analyzing how much time and resources are being given to white men 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. 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 career because, as we saw earlier, microaggressions in college can 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.

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

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, especially for women in minority groups. It is 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.

So what can you do going forward? 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. 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 everyone.

Understanding the unique skills of each of your team members can help them succeed. Schedule a free demo to learn how F4S can help you support women of color on your team.

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