In order to solve a problem, we first need to understand it – an idea that couldn’t ring more true when striving to achieve racial equity in the workplace. Deep racial inequalities are prevalent in workforces across the globe, disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC).
Although business leaders are recognising the crucial importance of racial equity – with 79% of 600 respondents sharing that they see it as a top priority, according to Flair – intent doesn’t always correlate with corrective action.
As a result, white men are 8 times more likely to hold executive positions than Black women, and white women are 4.5 times more likely to obtain leadership positions than Black women. To put this into perspective, Black women only hold 4.4% of managerial positions and 1.4% of C-suite positions in the US, despite being 7.4% of the population. Currently, only two Black women sit at the helm of S&P 500 companies: Thasunda Brown Duckett and Rosalind Brewer. In comparison, BIPOC workers are overrepresented in lower-level positions, particularly in healthcare, retail, accommodation, and food service industries, according to McKinsey.
Microaggressions in the workplace
Microaggressions refer to subtle or overt verbal or non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of systemically excluded groups of people. “I think the ‘micro’ in this term is a bit of a misnomer, because they don’t feel very micro when they’re happening to you. And the impact is certainly not insignificant. It’s better if we think of microaggressions as acts of exclusion,” Camille Dundas, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of ByBlacks.com says.
“These acts of exclusion never exist in isolation. Think of each act of microaggression as a paper cut. One won’t kill you, but it hurts – and when you experience several cuts a day over the life of your career, real damage occurs. Making fun of someone's accent, hair or ethnicity is not a joke. The intent might not be malicious, but they reinforce differences that are not welcome.”
Data indicates that racial microaggressions are linked to low self-esteem, increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, Camille continues, explaining that people of colour who experience microaggressions are more likely to feel sadness, anger, and hopelessness.
“I’m a big believer in trusting your intuition and your own personal power,” Amarachi Rachel Nwokoro, founder of BlackMind, says. “As Black women, we often feel like we’re too much, we’re inconveniencing, or that we’re out of place in some way, so we end up building masks to act as shields to protect us. This is exhausting because we are trying to create an image of ourselves that the world wants to see.
“So, for this reason, I encourage Black women and women of colour to trust themselves – even though it’s the hardest thing in the world – and to be themselves.”
Starting the conversation
Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast solution to reaching racial equity. There are, however, many different approaches that can be taken – for example, by considering hiring practices and job descriptions. “I know it may sound radical,” Camille says, “but you can actually just remove requirements like university degrees and years of experience.
“These aspects seem less radical once you examine how arbitrary they are as requirements and how they are intentional barriers to equity. Higher education is a huge barrier to equity because it’s expensive and out of reach for many people.”
Linda Calvin, a Tech Diversity and Talent Consultant at Transcend Consulting, recognises that hiring is a great place to start, but insists that it’s just an answer, not a solution. “Employers think hiring and investing in more youth of colour are the answer. Yes, they both work, but hiring means nothing if you cannot retain the talent,” Linda says. “Today, the hot button words are ‘authentic culture’, ‘we have a diversity officer’ and ‘inclusive workplaces’. These are all good things. But we continue to not hear organisations talk about what they are doing to create accountable cultures.
“An accountable culture is one that says we are committed to diversity, so we are taking steps to address issues of bias and racism, and will hold employees accountable for the creation and sustainability of an inclusive culture.”
And that’s exactly why Tony Nabors, Founder and CEO of Racial Equity Insights, works with organisations looking to embed racial equity into their identity, developing meaningful and effective long-term strategies that can be integrated.
With almost 20 years of experience, Tony works with clients to “flip the script” in terms of mentality as to how racial equity and anti-racism can be approached.
“Most organisations tend to work with linear processes – for example, by following a series of steps to complete a task. They then bring this mentality into racial equity work, but unfortunately, that’s not an effective approach,” Tony says. “Adaptive leadership has become a core foundation to my approach to racial equity work, which addresses people's beliefs, loyalties, emotions, and identity.”
But, of course, to encourage an inclusive culture, responsibility needs to start at the very top of the organisation and be fed down to the rest of the company’s employees via modelling and encouragement. “Any leadership figure in a position of power needs to have their own process of self-awareness,” Rachel says. “I prioritise this through check-ins that go beyond the ‘how are you?’ questions. Sometimes we can get so lost in the goal, the vision or the to-do list, that we lose ourselves. We need to create spaces for ourselves in the workplace to celebrate what we have achieved and just the fact that we’re still here continuing to show up.”
It’s not just the right thing to do
Most of us know about the racially segregated Jim Crow laws in the US – born from the abolishment of slavery as a way to control and limit the newly-free Black population – where certain areas, such as swimming pools were reserved for white people only. Camille sees these laws as a metaphor for racial equity in the workplace, explaining: “When towns started facing integration orders from the courts, many simply drained the pool rather than allowing Black people to swim in them.
“This sparked an increase in backyard pools and private membership swim clubs, which only a small percentage of people could afford to swim in – including white people. This works as a visual metaphor for the importance of an inclusive workplace. It’s a reminder that when we decide to drain the pool – of resources and opportunities, for example – it impacts everyone. Likewise, when the pool is open, it benefits all races. So, would you rather have no pool or a pool that everyone can swim in?”
Opening up pools – and workplaces – to ensure everyone is welcome isn’t just the right thing to do; it also creates stronger, more knowledgeable teams. “Organisations that are homogenous don't tend to challenge assumptions,” Tony says. “Whereas those that are diverse and inclusive are more innovative. They are faster problem solvers. Staff are happier. Clients have a higher level of trust. There's better staff retention. The list is endless.”
But the perks of prioritising racial equity go even further than that. Of course, every company wants a harmonious culture – but they also want profits. Linda explains: “From a workforce perspective, diversity increases the bottom line. It’s proven.
“A 2015 McKinsey report of 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean. Those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above industry means. Now, let’s talk about that bottom line: more diversity equals more money, better performing organisations and more opportunities for employees. Thus, a better life for all.
“Black women having the same opportunity does not rob others of the opportunity. It means we all have opportunities. There’s a t-shirt that I just love that says: ‘Equal rights for others doesn’t mean it’s less rights for you. It’s not pie.’”