Advancing Black Women Leaders at Work

Blog | Leadership Development | Rise and Lead Women
August 31, 2020
Spread the word

Have you heard of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day? The somber August 13 milestone marked the extra eight months a Black woman had to work to equal what a white male colleague had earned by the end of 2019 if they both started work on Jan. 1, 2019. That pay gap accounts for nearly $1 million in lost income throughout a Black woman’s career.

The findings come from “The State of Black Women in Corporate America,” a newly-released report by Lean In. According to the study, 49 percent of Black women say that ethnicity or race makes it difficult for them to earn a promotion or a raise, compared with 3 percent of white women and 11 percent of all women. In the U.S., the study shows that for every 100 white men advanced to management roles, only 58 Black women are promoted at the same rate – even though Black women request promotions as often as their male counterparts.

The report indicates that this gap keeps getting wider, and we can assume that COVID-19 and the extra child care burden it is putting on women is only making it worse. Business leaders and professionals can narrow the gap by taking some concerted steps.

Recognize the Problem


In an interview with Carol Sankar, Sheryl Sandberg, co-founder of, spoke to the responsibility business leaders face to correct the significant disparity Black women face. “The data shows that if you think you’re not biased, you display more of the bias because you are not taking the steps to correct it,” Sandberg said.

For decades, women of color have understood a harsh reality — gender equality in the workplace has meant gender equality for white women. Today’s leaders must recognize the inherent biases in our workplace culture and work to correct them. Some of these can include the labeling of an ambitious Black woman as “angry” or “aggressive” or thinking that a Black woman got hired initially because of her skin color, not her merit.

Each of us makes decisions based on preconceived ideas. However, once we recognize our biases, we can move forward to correct them.

Step up


During a discussion on diversity that is part of a Rise and Lead Women summit, Lencola Sullivan-Verseveldt, D & I facilitator and office manager for Shell in the Netherlands, encouraged women to advocate for themselves. “We should not wait for somebody to say, ‘Hey, you! That’s great!’ No. We have to step up,” she said.

She also stressed that successful Black women serve as role models. “Sometimes, when we are called upon to do things, we don’t step up because we think there are no role models…sometimes, we need to be that one (role model).”

If you are white, you can help eliminate bias by becoming data-driven when to comes to hirings and promotions. Track representation by both gender and race combined and set specific targets for women of color specifically. According to the Lean In study, only 7 percent of companies set these targets, leaving many Black women nearly invisible. Managers should also track the performance of women of color versus the performance of their peers.

The Lean In report recommends that organizations create metrics to determine how this proactive approach to the advancement of Black women works. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s good for business,” according to the report.

Champion Women of Color


Here’s a significant disparity. More than 80 percent of white women and men surveyed for the Lean In report say they consider themselves as allies to people of color at their jobs. However, fewer than half of Black women believe that they have strong work partners.

According to the Lean In report, Black women are less likely to have managers who help them navigate office politics or achieve a work-personal life balance. The study points out that employees who have manager support are more likely to be promoted. They’re also more likely to feel that they have an equal opportunity to advance in their organizations.

No matter your race or gender, you can become a champion of Back women at your workplace by becoming their open and outspoken ally.

At the Rise and Lead Summit, Emily Craig Graham, chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Fleishman Hillard, USA, said, “We must, as Black women, women of color, women of mixed race, recognize that we have a job to do once we achieve any position and that includes, and not limited to, pulling women alongside us and develop them over time, counsel them on what using your voice means, what that looks like. Highlight their experience, and ensure that they are heard in the closed-door discussions they are not in.”

Gail Blanke, the President and CEO of Lifedesigns, put it his way: “Don’t just stand for the success of other women — insist on it.”

Build Inclusion


Many Black women can share common stories of being “the only one in their office” or even “the only one” in their company. They often feel undervalued and that their work is scrutinized more than their colleague’s work. Black women also endure microaggressions such as, “You are so well-spoken for a Black woman.”

According to the Lean In report, Black women are about two and a half times more likely than white women to hear someone in their workplace express surprise about their abilities. These frequent put-downs take their toll. The report states that women who experience these kinds of microaggressions are three times more likely to think about leaving their job than other women.

It is not enough to have a diverse workplace. Inclusion must be a priority. Black women must be able to feel welcome, respected, and valued for their contributions.

Reducing roadblocks to the advancement of Black women takes real commitment. The good news is that Black women are more than up to the challenge. In fact, the Lean In report says that Black women are just as likely as white men (and significantly more likely than white women) to express interest in top executive positions. Now if only everyone else would get out of their way.

Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri is an accomplished entrepreneur and an advocate for women in leadership. Her passion to inspire others to achieve their goals drove her to found Rise and Lead Women along with her co-founder, Poonam Barua. Their mission is to inspire women to take the lead in closing the gender gap in workplaces and in business.

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