4 Ways to Support Women of Color Leaders in Your Organization

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Across the US, women of color represent 4% of C-suite positions, 4.6% of Fortune 500 board seats and only 3% of board seats in some of the most heavily funded private companies. Many business leaders acknowledge that diversity yields higher returns. We’ve seen the proof for years, yet many companies still struggle to place women of color in executive leadership positions and boards and have an even harder time diversifying their talent pipelines and networks.

Despite some progress, women of color still cite a continued lack of allyship, equitable and fair performance assessments for promotion and hiring, a lack of visibility for their talents and burnout due to these dynamics, compounded with the pandemic, as some of the reasons for the lack of significant advancement. There is a group of women of color, who say that they are tired of fighting for their voices to be heard and have turned to entrepreneurship as a way to take control of establishing a culture where they can thrive.

In my experience, some women of color executives feel the need to work harder to gain the same recognition and respect that seemed to be handed to their white male colleagues. This manifests in longer working hours and over-preparation in an effort to ‘get it right’.

This isn’t sustainable, and these feelings can lead to burnout much more quickly, causing women of color to leave their workplaces at a higher rate either because they do not feel a sense of belonging or they don’t see themselves succeeding and even more so thriving in the culture of the organization.

There are many women who have had success and have coped by accessing a network of like-minded people and staying close to those in their networks they have established credibility with. Mentoring and coaching have also been important resources they have leveraged to help them define their authentic leadership voice and to lean into their strengths as a leader. Many of these women have also mentioned male white colleagues who have been instrumental in their success and who have used their voice and influence to help accelerate the careers of women of color.

The good news is that many organizations are instituting action and investing in diversifying talent in leadership. And considering the challenging talent market, it’s even more important to ensure greater impact in a shorter amount of time. As companies work to diversify their talent at the top, here are a few ways you can ensure your organization is committed to diversifying its leadership and promoting women of color to executive positions.

Discover what barriers exist across the organization. Investigate potential biases by reviewing historical data around recruitment, salary, promotion, and hiring trends. Assess salaries and identify any disparities between people at the same level by demographics and review promotions in the same way. Review successor pipelines to ensure diversity across critical roles.

Many companies are hesitant to conduct these studies, afraid of what they might find under the hood. The companies that have forged ahead and have discovered discrepancies have been committed to making investments to correct them, breeding commitment and positive brand perception as an employer. They have also made changes to their people practices that support and promote a culture of belonging. Like implementing fair and balanced hiring and promotion protocols inclusive of diverse decision-makers focusing on capabilities and their potential.

Measure and track performance fairly and equitably. There might be inherent biases that exist in the language. Language such as culture fit or executive presence has meaning that makes it difficult for a woman or woman of color to step into and feel like they belong. Unpack what these words mean by identifying the behaviors.

For example, I once asked a leader why he decided to promote a male colleague over a female colleague, and he said that she didn’t have an executive presence. I asked him to expand on what that meant. As he spoke, he slowly realized he was hearing himself describe a white man. He was mortified and perplexed. His intent was not ill however, the impact was that he may have promoted someone, who while also skilled for the position, happened to also ‘look the part’ rather than really scrutinizing his decision based on performance and potential in the way he needed to.

Expand learning and development opportunities beyond unconscious bias and other DEI training programs to include coaching. Many women of color find this is a safe way to express their vulnerabilities that so often stay muted in the face of trying to work harder and prove themselves. They need opportunities to discuss some of the barriers they face and discover healthy ways to achieve success. Coaching also creates sustainable change because clients can practice new behaviors over a 6-to-12-month period with a coach who can help support and guide them along the way.

I once designed an executive development program focused on increasing allyship behaviors that included a hybrid approach of introducing DEI theory and concepts with opportunities for practical application. The two sessions were spaced out over one year with 3-month check-ins, including a 360 component, a debrief, and two coaching sessions. We met as a group again after almost a year and those who stayed committed to their development and their coaching sessions had a lasting change that extended across their organization to influence progressive policy changes and talent retention.

Fund Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to more formally inform talent practices. ERGs have been underfunded and have traditionally been treated as a way to raise awareness and for like-minded individuals to show up as they are and receive support and respite from some of the day-to-day challenges. These groups’ responsibility should be tied to leadership’s accountabilities to hire, retain and promote diverse talent. Let them offer their insights on culture enablers and barriers and ways they perceive the company evolving its culture to ensure a sense of belonging for diverse individuals. Moving from awareness into action and hopefully adoption and change. Ultimately, establishing a culture of inclusion where all people feel they belong and can thrive.

As individual leaders, and especially other women of color who have to establish themselves as successful leaders, practice allyship and sponsor a woman of color by using your influence to ensure their talents and potential are recognized. Most importantly call out behaviors that are misaligned and educate others on effective and healthy dialogue to promote inclusion and equity.  If you’re already doing a great job hiring, promoting, and retaining women of color, awesome. Talk about it obsessively so others can learn. This is a group effort!