Supporting BIPOC Women at Work


Originally published March 15, 2023, in Twin Cities Business magazine.

Women, particularly women of color, are feeling the pressure at work. Here's how to help.

"I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” –Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist 

This month, the calendar informs us that it is Women’s History Month and I’m curious how the women on your teams are faring—particularly the women of color?

Over the past few months, I have watched women that I know and women that I love silently struggle. While they smile in public, the side conversations, emails, and text messages reveal a different reality. In addition to our day-to-day lives, I don’t know one woman who isn’t struggling under the weight of some added workplace pressure. And to put the finest point possible on it, my Black Lady Friends (as I call them) are effing exhausted.

I’ve heard horror stories about gaslighting regarding pending promotions and pay raises, continued microaggressions, and constant micromanagement. Some of these women are actively choosing to leave the workforce altogether.

A recent study noted that 49% of Black workers are considering leaving their job. As leaders, we can’t see data like that and think that it doesn’t apply to us. Especially when the causation outlined in the study points to continued microaggressions from colleagues and/or leadership and failing or misaligned company DEI values and outcomes.

Did you know that the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both declared racism a public health crisis in 2020 and 2021, respectively? Since we spend one-third of our lifetime at our workplaces, we can’t pretend that this information is only relevant to our colleagues when they are outside of the workplace. On top of that, according to the Pew Research Center, the gender pay gap hasn’t changed much in 20 years. So women of color have consistently not been paid equitably for their day-to-day work, not to mention the added stress.

I always say that Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t supposed to die at the age of 59, but I’m certain that the world that she lived and worked in killed her. And it’s slowly killing other women of color, too. You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but consider this research from a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article taken from the book “The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America.” It’s eye-opening.

The women we have interviewed and coached are constantly on alert for threats like microaggressions, being passed over for promotions, or being asked to lift more than their fair share. All of these situations can drive maladaptive coping strategies (hiding part of one’s identity, for example) and escalate behaviors such as overworking. Such vigilance also keeps women in a constant state of activation, leaving their nervous systems chronically on high alert. This leads to a host of negative outcomes in mental and physical health alike and is part of the reason toxic workplaces are making women of color sick.

While the demand of workloads and daily responsibilities may be impacting women of color in the workplace, they are also suffering everyday, everywhere they go, due to racism, which is beyond their control. So yes, striving to create reasonable workloads and daily responsibilities to decrease burnout is a good start, but we also need to ensure that we are putting effort into solving for the inherent racism that exists in our workplaces. Instead of divesting from our DEI-related work or engaging in the absolute bare minimum, we need to recommit to the work in order to ensure that women of color don’t keep getting sick and tired.

Yes, let’s celebrate women this month. And let’s also consider what it might look like to actually support and affirm them. To do this, we can focus on supporting and affirming the most historically underrepresented women because while white women struggle, their racial identity is not adding to their condition. When we dedicate energy to those often left out, we ensure better outcomes for every woman–as they say, the rising tide will lift all ships. And here’s where I say that this article is not just for men. Sometimes women can bear responsibility for not supporting other women as much or more than men.

And if you’re asking yourself, now what do I do with this information? Here is where I recommend you start.

Check in on the women in your company or organization.

Ask them what they need. BELIEVE WHAT THEY TELL YOU (I put this in all caps because it’s important. No one is exaggerating at this point). And most importantly, don’t shame them for needing or asking. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. Finally, deliver what you can.

Ask yourself, do you have women of color on your leadership and management teams?

Are they also represented throughout your workforce? Review your turnover rates as they relate to the women in your organization– especially the women of color. If these numbers don’t look great, keep digging. Find out why. Then, create measurable solutions for the challenges that you identify.

In her speech, after Hamer said “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she went on to say, “The truth is the only thing going to free us.” The truth is racism is a public health crisis affecting your employees. So I ask, what are you going to do about it?

P.S. I’ll see you here next month! Have questions? Want to see a specific topic covered? Message me on LinkedIn.

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Photo: Civil Rights activists (from left) Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine speaking out on Black voting rights in 1965. BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES