As we celebrate International Women’s Day, a report from LinkedIn shows that there is still much progress, which needs to be made in terms of women advancing to leadership roles globally. According to the data, women hold about 38% of leadership roles in the U.S., a number that has only moved about 1 percentage point since 2016. Further, as women move up the corporate ladder their share of leadership roles decrease. BIPOC women face especially daunting odds.
Prior to the pandemic, women of color continued to struggle to secure executive level roles. For instance, in 2018, despite representing 18% of the population, BIPOC women represented only 4% of C-Suite level roles, as compared to White men (68%) and White women (19%).
Further, women of color are most likely to experience workplace harassment, are held to higher standards than their White women & male peers, and are presumed to be less qualified, despite their credentials, work product, or business results.
The pandemic has been equally unkind to BIPOC women, with many being forced to leave the workforce. For instance, 154,000 Black women left the workforce in December 2020, a staggering number.
One of the ways companies proposed to help women, especially BIPOC women, is through corporate leadership programs. Unfortunately, rather than helping BIPOC women, these leadership programs all too often provide an additional burden to them, while not leading to the identified results of enabling them to gain more senior level roles. Many BIPOC women participants discussed having to spend additional hours completing the assignments for their leadership programs, while handling their managers’ opposition to their participation in these programs. What BIPOC women need are clear paths to advancement and identified leadership opportunities, rather than the undue burden created by these leadership programs, which are not beneficial to their advancement and cause additional stress. In order to support BIPOC women in their leadership goals, companies should:
1) Link leadership programs to tangible advancement outcomes- rather than have BIPOC women participate in leadership programs which are often a road to nowhere, structure them so that there are clear advancement opportunities for them, for which they will be given priority.
2) Facilitate buy-in from participants’ managers- if the managers of BIPOC women are not supportive of their decision to pursue a leadership program, it will create additional work and strain for the participants. Therefore, the managers should be incentivized for their direct report’s participation, and the workload of the direct report should be modified to accommodate her participation in the leadership program. The leadership program should not become an additional burden for BIPOC women.
3) Offer genuine sponsorship opportunities- according to a study by McKinsey and Leanin.org, Black women are least likely to gain support from their managers, in the form of promoting their work, helping them navigate organizational politics, and introducing them to key leaders. Therefore, these leadership programs should identify senior leaders as sponsors, and provide consistent engagement opportunities with them during the course of the program.
4) Provide leadership coaching as part of the program- another important component which is often overlooked in the advancement of BIPOC women, is the value of leadership coaching. Leadership program participants should also be matched with a coach, who can help them further chart their advancement plan, provide strategic guidance in managing company politics, and serve as a key sounding board for their leadership journey challenges. These coaches should be culturally competent, to appreciate the unique challenges which BIPOC women leaders face, in the form of micro-aggressions, sexual harassment, and other forms of bias.
5) Train managers and senior leaders on topics related to gender & racial unconscious bias, micro-aggressions, impostor syndrome, and structural sexism & racism- the intersectionality of BIPOC women’s identities leave them susceptible to both sexism and racism in the workplace. They are often overlooked for sponsorship due to affinity bias, wherein managers, oftentimes White men or White women, seek to affiliate with & support first those who look like them and share similar backgrounds. By training managers to understand their own unconscious biases and how micro-aggressions, both racial and gender, can adversely impact BIPOC women, it can enable them to better support them. Also educating them about impostor syndrome and the double impact which BIPOC women face, where internally they may feel like a fraud, and externally, signals in the environment also tell them they do not belong, can prove useful in helping them to better support BIPOC women.
6) Constantly evaluate the success of these leadership programs in meeting their identified goals – if few or no BIPOC women are advancing as a result of these leadership programs, than they are nothing more than window-dressing and need to be revised or eliminated.
7) Provide flexibility & robust childcare options to accommodate women’s needs – as noted, many BIPOC women left the workforce during these past three years, oftentimes due to childcare constraints. By providing flexibility, in terms of hybrid or remote options, and investing in robust childcare options, companies can improve their retention of women.
Corporate leadership programs can be useful for BIPOC women, but they must be structured in such a way for them to realize their benefits, without placing unfair burden on their workload and without causing tension with their managers. By addressing these flaws in leadership programs, they can truly unlock their potential to help BIPOC women advance rapidly to senior roles and long-term career success.
If you are interested in learning more about how to be a healthy leader who supports BIPOC women, pick up my new book Your Unstoppable Greatness.