Black women are real-life superheroes, often burning the candle at both ends: they strive for excellence at work while struggling to hold things down at home.
Things have gotten even harder as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Now the lines have been permanently blurred in some cases, with companies piling more responsibilities while Black women juggle remote schooling, round-the-clock child care, and more.
This has led to a mass exodus of Black women and women of color from the workplace. In December 2019 alone, all U.S. job losses were attributed to Black, Hispanic and Asian women alone. Some point to women of color being more likely to work in industries ravaged by the pandemic, but other chronic challenges are also rearing their ugly heads.
According to Dr. Pam Cohen, president of WerkLabs, “Two times as many women of color in our studies reported feeling as though their workplace was testing employees to see who persists, who remains resilient.” As if Black women aren’t already challenged, doubted and undervalued enough, now the employers have developed inaccurate, extremely skewed visions of what the “work from home” experience is really like.
But as we always do, Black women face it with a smile — even if it’s a fake one for Zoom.
“It’s a feeling of always being on trial,” says Cohen.
The jury is out on whether pandemic conditions truly created new barriers for Black women, or simply intensified the ones that were already there. Looking back at a 2007 study of Black women who abandoned traditional jobs to become entrepreneurs, conducted by Amber Joiner-Hill, owner and principal consultant at Magnolia Detroit Consulting, many of the reasons listed then still ring loud and true today (via HR Executive):
- Code-switching: Black women felt pressured to change their looks, speech, dress and more, building a full-identity mask and trying to blend into a culture that will never not see their color, anyway.
- Representation: Then, as now, Black women are rare in true positions of corporate power. In some companies, industries and fields, they are hardly represented at all. That leads to Black women employees being viewed almost as “ambassadors” for all Black people and the culture.
“Keeping up this performance is exhausting,” Joiner-Hill says, noting that her research found that this emotional weight caused women significant stress that affected their physical health.
- Microaggressions: Working in a majority-white environment oftens means absorbing slick comments, offensive insinuations and other actions, like unwanting touching of our hair. Unless co-workers or higher-ups make blatant moves prohibited by HR, Black women are often forced to “suck it up” — until they eventually run out of mental and emotional space, forcing them to leave before they blow.
So if majority-led companies want to retain top-tier Black female talent, it’s time for them to do thorough gut checks. Industry is filled with professionals who can train leadership and staff on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism, facilitate open discussions, and set up ongoing programs and lines of communication. In addition, companies can ”provide Black women mentors to connect them with career development, sponsorship and advocacy,”,”create transparent and equal pay scales,” and evaluate supervisors’ soft skills as well as how they impact the company’s bottom line.
Failure to address these issues and concerns will come back to bite businesses in the future. If Black women don’t return to the workplace, American businesses will lose a valuable pool of top-tier, hardworking talent that will be extremely hard — if not impossible — to replace.
One group working to prevent this from happening is The Mom Project, a digital talent marketplace for working mothers. Its nonprofit armMomProject.org launched the RISE initiative, providing scholarships for 10,000 women of color to pursue technology certificates over the next three years. The six-weeks are reportedly structured to allow women to remain at their full-time jobs and maintain childcare and other responsibilities.