The State of Black Women in the Workplace and How HR Can Help - Black women sitting in conference room talking

The State of Black Women in the Workplace and How HR Can Help

Busisiwe Hlatswayo
December 21, 2022
December 20, 2022

This blog post was written by Busisiwe Hlatswayo, Career expert at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

I am facilitating a group workshop of senior managers. We are discussing the topic of Influence. The scenario I give them to discuss is: “How to get buy-in for menstruation leave.” The HR lady in the group says she doesn’t see how this would fly. The best thing they could do is to recommend a medical practitioner for those who experience heavy and painful periods. I try to hide my disappointment at her response, and I advise her to consider advocating for the position before she dismisses it. Someone in the group adds that our privilege can blind us to the needs of others we can’t relate to. I can see that this got her thinking—there is hope. Hope for the employees who have to endure the negative mental health impact of hostile working conditions, the careless dismissal of their experience because HR can’t relate, and the mental turmoil of deciding whether the cost of speaking up is not steeper than just accepting that these conditions come with the territory.  

I have observed when reading Twitter threads of bad experiences in the workplace, and in the experience of my coaching clients, that there is a perception that HR is biased towards the company’s leadership interest at the expense of employees’ experience.

This is what happens when HR does not understand their dual role of holding both the interest of the business and of the employees equally. 

When I was studying for my MBA, I got introduced to the role of HR in a way that I hadn’t thought of before. As a Risk Management Specialist then, I was of the firm view that risk management should be part of any meeting where decisions are made in order to anticipate and mitigate risks. I learned that it is just as important that HR should be in the room, too, in order to fulfill their delicate role of holding both the interest of the business and of the employees who will be impacted by the decisions that are made.

HR holds the powerful position of being a strategic mediator. That’s not an easy role—to hold often opposing interests and have the ability and the creativity to come up with win-win solutions when it would be much easier to align yourself to the business interest, where the power and job security are. It’s also easier to dismiss and invalidate what you have not experienced, like the experience of Black women at work, if you do not share that identity.

Related: How to Influence Progress on DEI Initiatives When Leadership Isn't on Board

Why Black Women in the Workplace?

My first corporate job was in one of the BIG 4 Audit Firms. I was confident and ambitious; I came from my community which affirmed me. I didn’t understand or have language for what was happening to me then, but I just felt inadequate and unimportant. I just didn’t belong. I couldn’t figure out how to exist in this environment. How I am used to being was just not cutting it in this space. I have worked in both Black-dominated spaces and White-dominated spaces and the experience is different. Both spaces have their own challenges, but I have never felt both erased and hyper visible in Black-dominated spaces as I did in White-dominated spaces. 

As a career coach who coaches Black women, the research matches the experience of Black women that I interact with daily irrespective of whether they are in the US, in Africa, or in the UK. Black women have a worse experience at work than any other marginalized identity. 

Research done on the state of Black women in corporate America by the Lean In organization states 

“Women are having a worse experience than men. Women of color are having a worse experience than [W]hite women. And Black women in particular are having the worst experience of all.”

According to this report, Black women face the following obstacles in the workplace:

  • Black women are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles: They are less likely to get that first promotion to management, which reduces their chances of ever advancing. This is referred to as “the broken wrung” (in the corporate ladder towards the top leadership positions). This is in spite of Black women being found to be more ambitious when compared to other women and just as ambitious as White men, in wanting to advance to top leadership.
  • Black women are more likely to face attribution bias, where their success is attributed to factors outside of their control such as affirmative action, which reinforces the stereotype that Black women are less competent than their peers. 
  • With mistakes—attribution bias works differently—mistakes are often amplified as reinforcing the stereotypes. This causes a continuous state of hypervigilance and perfectionism, which greatly increases stress and negatively impacts wellbeing. Where Black women feel their actions reflect on the whole race, especially when they are the first or the only Black woman leader in that workplace.
  • Black women have less access to interaction with senior leadership. This is mainly due to affinity bias, which means that we like to work with people who look like us and mentor and advocate for people who remind us of ourselves when we were their age. Since top leaders are mostly White and male, the affinity often does not exist. This lack of access results in a lack of sponsorship, lack of visibility, exclusion from strategic platforms and conversations in the workplace, and fewer opportunities of being noticed.
  • Microaggressions like:

          o having their appearances commented upon,

          o having their judgment questioned in the area of their expertise, 

          o being mistaken for someone junior, 

          o having people surprised at their language skills or constantly correct their use of grammar,

          o being deemed angry when the advocate for themselves, a form of tone policing that reinforces the stereotype of the “angry Black woman”,

          o getting signals that they are being tokenized as a diversity hire or being expected to do unpaid Diversity, Equity and inclusion work,

          o being expected to perform in a hostile, non-inclusive environment.

  • Black women experience a wider pay gap than White women when compared to White men. White women make 89% while Black Women make 63% of what White men earn. While Black women are more likely to be the sole financial provider of their families. They also face what is called the “Black tax” which is an expectation to help members of their extended families who are mostly poor due to the effect of systemic racism.
  • These experiences have a negative mental health impact on Black Women. Even though the overall rate of mental health conditions in Black Americans is similar to the rate of mental health conditions in White Americans, Black women are 1.8 times more likely than Black men to report sadness most or all the time and are 2.4 times more likely than Black men to report feeling hopeless more or all the time. Black women are also reported to be less likely to access medical health care due to their previous bad experiences with health care practitioners and lack of access to culturally sensitive mental health care. Black mental health care providers represent only about 2% of practicing psychiatrists and 4% of psychologists.

What should HR do to support Black women at work?

It is quite clear that more should be done to support Black women at work. The Lean In Allyship training program identifies five areas of inequity in the workplace and what can be done to better the experience of marginalized identities including Black women.

1. Everyday Interactions

The day-to-day conversations, meeting dynamics, or watercooler talks where people with traditionally marginalized identities might have to contend with intentional and unintentional forms of disrespect and microaggressions.

What HR Should Do

Educate and train the organization about the experiences of people with marginalized identities in the workplace in order to reduce instances of unconscious blunders that may be experienced as microaggressions. These should be refreshed periodically and form part of the orientation and onboarding of new employees.

2. Workplace Norms and Expectations

This refers to corporate culture and includes everything from the way we set up our physical workspaces to the hours we expect our colleagues to be available.

What HR Should Do

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion intentions should be operationalized and embedded in the way things are done in the organization. Clear and specific conduct guidelines should be developed, and reporting and accountability mechanisms should be put in place. Policies such as office, remote, or hybrid work should be implemented with an understanding of the context of everyone in the workplace. 

3. Hiring Practices

Experiences applying or interviewing for jobs include recruitment policies and procedures, how interviews are conducted, and how candidates are selected.

What HR Should Do

  • Consider using blind shortlisting practices.
  • Use clear criteria to avoid eliminating candidates based on biases.
  • Ensure diversity in interview panels. 
  • Set and monitor diverse representation targets.

4. Advancement and Recognition 

Employee recognition for ideas or contributions or opportunities for advancement like high-profile projects and promotions.

What HR Should Do

  • Monitor your pipeline of Black women leaders. Are Black women in your organization advancing at the same rate as other demographics? 
  • Train and monitor the impact of biases when deciding on promotion, salary increases, and allocation of work in strategic projects that increase visibility.
  • Increase representation of Black women in leadership and strategic projects to avoid the experience of being the first and only. 

5. Mentorship and Sponsorship 

Access to mentors, sponsors, and senior leaders have long-lasting implications for how successful people are in their careers.

What HR Should Do

  • Intentionally provide opportunities or programs for Black women to be mentored and sponsored by senior leaders in the workplace.
  • Train and hold managers accountable for mentoring and sponsorship of their subordinates.

Companies have to intentionally prioritize the advancement and inclusion and support of Black women if they are serious about creating inclusive and psychologically safe work environments. They should train their managers on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices and monitor the implementation thereof. The practice of inclusion has to be embedded in the way the organizations work if we are to see progress in this area. All wellness support initiatives should be culturally sensitive, and companies have to ensure a diverse representation of health care practitioners used.

For more on DEI and psychological safety at work, check out this resource.

To read further on this subject, check out the following resources

  1. The State of Black Women in Corporate America 2020 -
  2. The Woman in the Workplace report 2022 -
  3. Allyship training -
  4. Bias Training - Leanin-org
  5. Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Collins Hill
  6. Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Check out this video for more on this topic:

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Busisiwe Hlatswayo
Busisiwe Hlatswayo
Busisiwe Hlatswayo (MBA) is an award-winning Black Women in Leadership Coach and Founder of Black Women in the Workplace, a company whose mission is to increase the representation of Black women leaders in both the workplace and the marketplace and to create workplaces that are psychologically safe environments for diverse talent to thrive.