Black Americans are still facing big gaps in workforce inequality despite gains in higher education and employment rate, especially when it comes to representation in leadership positions.
While black workers account for 10% of college degree holders, only 3.2% of them are in leadership positions at large U.S. companies and less than 1% are Fortune 500 CEOs, according to a report by the Center for Talent Innovation, a workplace think tank.
“It’s seriously daunting and while we cannot change the stats/system overnight, we can start by tackling and addressing some of the things that happen day to day that we don’t even think about or notice,” said Maggie Stamets, the content strategist for BUILT BY GIRLS, Cashay’s sister site and a platform that helps prepare female and non-binary students for careers in technology.
Non-black colleagues can make the workplace more equitable by being vigilant, educating themselves, and speaking out. BUILT BY GIRLS gathered some tips on the best ways to do that.
Microaggressions are subtle, yet harmful and frequent interactions conveying hostile feelings towards a group or identity. They can be intentional or unintentional.
“You can recognize a microaggression most of the time if the comment mentions or calls out the person’s race or identity,” Stamets said. “Essentially, this is not a comment that would have been said to or about a straight white man.”
Responding to microaggressions is important, but so is picking up your battles. Before responding, you must weigh several factors. First, determine whether your physical safety is in danger. Consider if the other person will become defensive and turn into an argument. Last, think about what would happen if you don’t respond — you may be conveying to that person that you accept the behavior.
After deciding to respond to microaggression, there are three tactics you should consider.
First, get more clarification by asking: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” or “How have you come to think that?” according to Carol Chan, brand and content marketing lead for BUILT BY GIRLS.
Second, you should separate intent from impact by saying that the person’s comment could be hurtful or offensive even though they don’t realize it and then suggest a different language or way of behavior.
And last, share your own process by saying that you used to say something that might have been hurtful to others, but now you’ve learned to not talk about it in that way.
“Dealing with these aggressions shouldn’t be just on the black people at the company to shoulder,” Stamets said. “So if you’re a non-black employee and you hear a coworker say something subtly racist or aggressive, you really only have one job here: Say something.”
Promoting and recognizing black talent
Seeing someone relatable in an aspirational position makes that position seem attainable, which is called the “role model” effect. But for employees to see more black people in leadership positions, “there must be a concerted effort to recognize and promote black talent within the company,” BUILT BY GIRLS Executive Director Tiana Kara said.
One way to do that is to amplify black voices in a meeting by giving credit to your black colleagues for their ideas. You shouldn’t shy away from giving your black coworkers a shoutout on their contributions. This can be done through a simple Slack message or sending a team-wide email.
Third, you should advocate for equal representation in the meetings and conferences you participate in.
“When you’re invited to speak or attend a conference, scrutinize the guest list,” Kara said. “If you don’t see many black people, who based on their role, should be there, advocate for their inclusion.”
Be a good ally
To become a better ally, you should start by developing empathy and unlearning any implicit biases you may have. You can do that by researching and reading stories written by and about black people.
“For non-black people and especially white people, this will involve getting uncomfortable,” Kara said. “The truth in America is that racism exists and you have privilege that has helped you while holding other people back. Sit in these feelings, but don’t let them stop you. Use them as motivators to become as educated as possible.”
In the process of educating yourself, you should take the initiative and educate yourself and not rely on your black friends or colleagues to lead the way. Don’t be afraid of having tough conversations with your family and friends who may not have educated themselves on the topic, either.
“It’s your job to talk to these people,” Chan said, “now more than ever.”
Don’t make it about you
In the process of making your workplace equitable, you shouldn’t forget where the focus lies.
If you decide to join Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, remember that you’re there to listen, learn and support, not to insert your experience.
“Don’t make it about you. Their oppression isn’t about you,” Stamets said. “You don’t need to share the things you’re doing to help their cause.”
Read more information and tips in our Advice section