How to Be an Active Ally to Black Women at Work
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
This article originally published on The Muse.
“Ally” is a popular word in the workplace these days as people seek to put action behind the pledges of racial justice and equality that many organizations have made. Often, people use the term allyship to refer to a general sense of support for marginalized groups. Yet the experience of marginalized groups in the workplace is not monolithic.
I’ve spent my career helping workplaces become more inclusive. With the hundreds of global clients I have worked with, there is one constant: People often want to change workplaces for the better but stop short of really wanting to do the hard, intentional work it takes. Part of this hard work is acknowledging that the experience of all marginalized groups is not the same—so you shouldn’t approach allyship as a one-size-fits-all endeavor. For example, the history and experiences of a transgender man in the workplace is not the same as those of someone with a disability, and thus showing up as an ally for each of these people should look different. There is overwhelming evidence that one group in particular has it harder in the workplace: Black women. Malcolm X famously said: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” He wasn’t speaking about work specifically, but his words apply nevertheless. As Lean In’s 2020 “State of Black Women in Corporate America” report found, “Women are having a worse experience than men. Women of color are having a worse experience than white women. And Black women in particular are having the worst experience of all.”
Showing up as an ally for Black women requires an approach that takes into account the reality of their unique experiences—which, as the lawyer and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw highlighted in her research on intersectionality, is different from that of Black men and white women. If you’re seeking to become an ally to Black women in the workplace, here’s how to get started.
1. Start By Knowing the Facts
One of the most frustrating parts of the racial justice rhetoric of 2020 was the collective sense of unawareness of the plight of Black men and women in the workplace. The struggles are not new, but so many well-intentioned allies have not taken advantage of the plethora of resources available to get familiar with the facts, including research reports and academic studies that have come out over the years—and continue to be released all the time—that illuminate the workplace experiences of Black employees and, in some cases, Black women specifically.
For example, a report from McKinsey & Company lays out the five common challenges Black employees face in the private sector, including high attrition rates, a broken rung between entry-level and managerial jobs, and a lack of sponsorship and allyship. Lean In’s report found that Black women’s success is often discounted and attributed to factors such as affirmative action or random chance instead of hard work.
To be an ally to Black women, you first need to take the time to understand the data so that you have a strong foundation to build on. But remember that while intellectual understanding is great, the real work of allyship is in seeking out opportunities for action. It's not enough to internalize your learnings and do nothing. It's also not enough to wait until bias is explicitly presented in front of you. Instead, you must proactively look for ways to support Black women and uncover inequities in your organization’s processes (formal and informal), policies, and culture.
2. Increase Your Exposure
You can’t simply read studies and statistics about Black women and call it a day—if you want a nuanced and human perspective, it’s also important to hear from Black women speaking for themselves. However, it’s vital that you do not ask one Black woman to speak on behalf of all Black women since having to be a spokesperson for all of the people in a demographic category can be an exhausting and undue burden.
Find ways to get increased exposure to the experiences of Black women by diversifying the media you consume. For example, you can listen to Cultural Competence, a podcast I co-host that highlights the unique perspectives of Black women in the workplace as we tackle tough issues such as ethinic hair discrimination. Or you can start following Black women leaders in your industry on social media.
And ask yourself some tough questions about your exposure to and relationships with Black women:
Have you ever had any Black women friends? Why not?
Do you have any Black women coworkers you are close and candid with?
Have you sought to understand the perspectives and experiences of the Black women in your workplace? If not, what’s holding you back?
Have you tried to diversify your social and professional networks to include Black women?
Answering yes to these questions doesn’t mean you’re done, but it does mean you have a foundation to continue to build on.
3. Develop Authentic Relationships
If you really want to be an ally, make it your goal to develop authentic relationships with the Black women in your workplace. However, remember that if you haven’t made an effort to develop a personal relationship in the past, it's unrealistic to expect it to happen overnight. Here are a few steps you can take to start building new and meaningful connections with Black women in the workplace:
Make the first effort. Invite a Black woman to a coffee or lunch chat (make it virtual if you’re working remotely) to get to know each other better.
Be vulnerable in your conversations. Showing vulnerability builds trust in relationships, so in your conversations, bravely share your authentic thoughts, questions, and insecurities.
Participate in activities hosted by employee resource groups (ERGs) or other multicultural support groups at your workplace when they are open to you. If possible, become an active member in an employee resource group for allies in your workplace.
4. Speak Up Against Stereotypes
Racism in our society has led to hurtful stereotypes of Black women that can have a negative career impact. For instance, stereotypes contribute to Black workers being penalized more harshly for lateness than their white counterparts. Further, Black women must overcome both gendered and racialized stereotypes such as the notion that they’re hostile and overly aggressive.
As a result of these pervasive stereotypes, Black women experience a wider range of microaggressions at work. For example, a Black woman may be characterized as “having an attitude” when the same behaviors by her white and male counterparts are considered positive leadership behaviors.
Being an ally requires you to understand how these racialized and gendered stereotypes can show up in the workplace and speak up when you hear them being activated. Here’s how you can do it:
Question the stereotype: “What makes you say she has an attitude?”
Highlight what is problematic about the statement: “You know, Black women are more likely to be negatively perceived when they’re assertive compared to men and white women.”
Help others reframe the situation in a more equitable way: “She’s very vocal, which is exactly the kind of leadership we need to get to a quick decision on this project.”
5. Increase Transparency
Black women in the U.S. are paid, on average, 36% less than white men and 20% less than white women. Though the pay gap is a systemic and structural issue you can’t solve single-handedly, increasing transparency by openly discussing salaries with your colleagues is one thing you can do to combat pay inequity. In practice, this means telling your peer what you make or telling a mentee or more junior teammate what you made when you were at their level. Sharing compensation is legal, and it has been since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, and having—and normalizing—conversations about pay can allow Black women to better advocate for themselves in future compensation discussions.
You can increase transparency in other ways too, by sharing:
Feedback and advice you get: Women are less likely to get candid and specific developmental feedback from managers. In addition to gender, differences including race and age can make people more uncomfortable giving critical feedback. Sharing the developmental feedback you receive, along with advice on unspoken best practices and ways to impress, can help Black women have more clarity on what it takes to advance in your organization. For example, you could share advice you may have received from a manager that was particularly helpful to your growth, whether it was to make sure you forward notes of praise from clients to your boss or make sure to get to know folks from a certain team.
Information about professional development opportunities and resources: Black women generally receive less support and fewer opportunities to manage people and projects. Thus, sharing information about internal opportunities for development and leadership or external professional development resources, such as conferences or networking groups, can help Black women advance. For example, if you attend an informal networking lunch with people in your industry once a month, extend an invitation to a Black woman on your team for the next one.
6. Amplify Success
The success of Black women is often discounted. As an ally, you have the opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of the Black women you work with. This requires you to decenter yourself from the spotlight and allow it to be shared with or given to someone else completely. It can be hard to do, but if you remove your ego and focus on the greater need for equity in the workplace, you can create real change.
Here are a few ways you can amplify the success of Black women:
Call attention to their positive team contributions. When you think about your organization’s culture, how are successes usually measured, recognized, and attributed? Use that knowledge to celebrate your coworkers' successes using the right channels, such as an email to your manager or a formal peer feedback recognition system, if your organization uses one.
Recognize when an idea presented by a Black woman has been overlooked and bring it back to the group’s attention. In a meeting, for instance, you can say something like, “I think Sarah just voiced a great idea, let’s talk more about it.”
Name drop when talking to key figures. Black women are less likely to interact with senior leaders, so the next time you are in a conversation with a senior leader look for opportunities to name drop Black women and their achievements at relevant moments.
As you read these suggestions, you may be thinking “this sounds like a lot of work.” Yes, it is. Allyship is not passive consumption of information; it's intentional and active and likely requires extra effort on your part. Do not let that discourage you. The fight for equity, inclusion, and justice in the workplace is a long and ongoing journey that will last beyond the hashtags and black squares on social media.
So start somewhere. Identify one or more areas where you can have an impact. For example, you may have noticed your teammate doesn’t seem to get shoutouts in weekly meetings even when she’s done stellar work. Ask yourself: How can I specifically make a difference? And then make a tactical plan: When I see my colleague has done a really great job on a project, I will email our manager to recognize her accomplishment. Only through this type of active allyship will we enable Black women to thrive in the workplace.