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How to be better allies to women of color at work

First of all, talk less and listen more.

How to be better allies to women of color at work
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

We’re seeing a lot of conversation surrounding the importance of male allyship in the workplace. After all, the gender pay gap continues to persist, women aren’t getting promoted at the same rate as men, and they’re also more likely to be interrupted, talked over, and penalized for speaking out at work. Books like Lean In and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office have dug into these dynamics and how it causes the glass ceiling. Yet very few conversations center around the unique experiences faced by women of color in the workplace and the concrete ceiling that often impedes their career progression.

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In Minda Harts’ new book, The Memo, she discussed the unique workplace experiences of women of color in detail. Harts indicated that it’s not that women of color lack the leadership potential or experience, but that those in power aren’t elevating them or amplifying their voices.

How can organizational leaders be better allies to women of color in the workplace, and how can their companies support them best?

1. Amplify their voices

A Catalyst report found that there is an emotional tax that women of color experience in the workplace. Research indicates that women are more likely to be interrupted at work, but for women of color, speaking up and speaking out can be even more daunting. Pervasive and dangerous stereotypes such as the “Angry Black Woman”, the “Spicy Latina”, and the “Docile Asian” continue to persist.

If you’re a manager, you can help by repeating what a woman of color has said when she offers a notable point in a meeting. Saying things like, “Karen, that’s a great idea,” or “Linda, you’re on to something there. Could you tell us more?” are just a few ways that you can amplify the voices of your female counterparts. Look for opportunities to elevate them at work, in and out of the boardroom.

2. Talk less, listen more

Women of color experience micro-aggressive behaviors and harassment at a higher rate than white women, according to research. However, their complaints aren’t always taken seriously. If you’re in a position of power in a company, it’s crucial to have a system of identifying, reporting, and preventing micro-aggressive behavior and bias. Of course, you can’t do this without listening to the experiences of women of color. Expect it to be an ongoing effort and understand that you won’t fix it by conducting one training. Your employees need to have a continuing dialogue on micro-aggressions and how to address them in the workplace.

3. Provide more sponsorship

Research indicates that, despite the high percentage of women of color who want to make it to the top of their profession, only 4% of C-level consists of women of color. This same research also indicates that for women of color, a prestigious education at an Ivy League school has minimal impact on career progression. Women of color who enter a role with the experience, skills, and knowledge required may still find themselves lagging behind their white counterparts in terms of promotion and pay. One research study found that women who cultivate influential mentors and advisers were better able to get to senior management positions in their companies.

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Organizations must offer sponsorship opportunities that pair women of color with senior-level employees who can help them navigate their careers. A formal sponsorship program can be effective, but if that doesn’t work for your organization, you can also create additional networking opportunities to give women of color the chance to cement meaningful relationships.

4. Equal pay for equal work

True allyship means paying women of color fair and equal wages for the same work as their counterparts. Yet we continue to see disparities in the pay gap. Black women, for example, earn 61 cents on the dollar compared to their white male peers.

Companies should frequently conduct pay audits to ensure that there is equity in pay rates. Companies that make salaries public can also help close the gender pay gap. Transparency might not fix everything, but it does expose the problem and creates incentives for companies to lower the likelihood of pay disparities. Closing the gender and racial pay gap is a long-term commitment. In addition to transparency, companies should also assess their policies and procedures to ensure that they’re not unfairly punishing women of color.

Think about the different ways that you can help women of color in your workplace. Are you able to endorse and amplify women of color? Are you open to serving as a mentor or sponsor for women of color? Listen to the women of color in your workplace. What do they want? The best way to figure that out is to ask them. Read more stories from the perspectives of women of color to gain more in-depth insight into their experiences. Use your voice, your resources, your power, and your status to think about different ways you can help elevate your female colleagues of color. We’ll all be better for it.


Janice Gassam is a TEDx speaker and a consultant helping businesses foster a culture of diversity and inclusion.

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