Supporting Women of Color

Helping women of color realize their ambitions 

Where all women face workplace obstacles, the barriers are even more pervasive and persistent for women of color. Despite high levels of ambition and preparedness, women of color are far less likely to reach the C-Suite, or even be promoted to manager. Candid conversation can help companies embrace better practices, equip white allies to offer tangible support and enable women of color to advocate for change.  


The 2019 Women in the Workplace Study by McKinsey & Company and shows a four percent increase in women in senior leadership over the past five years. That’s an encouraging statistic, however, women of color still lag dramatically behind.  

Only one in 25 

Whereas about one in five senior leaders is now a woman, only one in 25 is a woman of color. At the very first promotion from entry-level to manager, women fall significantly behind with a 21 percent lower chance of being promoted to manager than men. Women of color are 40 percent less likely to be promoted to manager.  

Despite those odds, a 2017 Nielsen Survey found that women of color are highly ambitious, often significantly more so than their white counterparts. Among black women, 64 percent in the Nielsen survey said they had a goal of making it to the top of their profession, nearly double the percentage of non-Hispanic white women.  

Regarding promotion, 80 percent of black women, 76 percent of Latina women and 83 percent of Asian women expressed strong interest in being promoted compared to 75 percent of white men and 68 percent of white women in the study.   

“We want those stretch assignments,” explains Vicky Free, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer for Novant Health. Free will facilitate the Women of Color Community of Interest (COI) at the 2020 WFF Leadership Conference

“We have seen others who meet just a few of the required criteria sought in a new role be given an opportunity or promotion because someone bets on their potential and invests in their future,” Free adds. “Women of color need more of that kind of trust and support to move up the ladder, into the C-Suite and to take on decision-making roles.” 

Held back rather than lifted up 

Both Nielsen and McKinsey identify multiple factors that hold women of color back from advancing at work. They are more likely to experience microaggressions than any other group, are often impacted by unconscious bias and held to a higher standard and presumed less qualified despite their credentials.  

McKinsey reports they are also less likely to have bosses who promote their work, help them navigate organizational politics or socialize with them outside of work.  

Be intentional 

Efforts to open greater opportunities to women of color must deal with obstacles head on. Consider these starting points.  

Prioritize racial and gender diversity 

When companies understand the robust data that shows ethnic and gender diversity boosts bottom line performance, they are better able to prioritize policies and practices that build diversity. Helping employees understand the business case for diversity also increases buy-in. 

Reach out to women of color proactively. 

“People do business with those they like,” Free says. “But the only way to like someone is by getting to know them.” She urges white colleagues to reach out to people of color to get to know them beyond their specific scope of work or title. She also encourages people of color to be receptive. “Many people of color are advised from a young age to keep work and home separate,” she explains. “But I tell young people, ‘What brought you here won’t take you there.’ Trusting relationships are critical for moving into senior leadership.” 

Understand diversity within diversity 

Individuals from underrepresented groups are often expected to speak on behalf of their entire group. “You cannot assume homogeneity of thought, background and experience among any group of people,” Free advises. “I will be open to genuine questions to help you get to know me better as long as you are not thinking of me as checking a certain box for you.”  

Make the “only” experience rare 

“Not only are women of color often the only person like us in the room, many times we are also the first person like us in that room,” Free explains. “Being the first woman of color within a workplace setting can create tremendous pressure to fit in, demonstrate the credentials, be likeable, not stand out too much and yet also be authentic and find your voice. It’s challenging to navigate all of those internal dynamics and do your best work at the same time.” That’s one reason it’s so valuable for women of color to connect with others facing similar headwinds.  

Give credit and recognition when due 

Women of color often see their ideas ignored until voiced by someone else. Although department- and company-wide efforts are required to educate team members around unconscious bias and implement stronger policies and practices, individual allies can have significant impact. When you see a colleague of color not being recognized for her work or her ideas heard, speak up. 

Build a circle of support 

People of color tend to experience higher rates of depression, stress and anxiety than others as they are so often under a microscope. Free emphasizes the importance of self-care. “You have to have a network of friends and colleagues where you can be completely honest. We all need people to catch us when we’re stumbling whether that’s allies who look like us or those who don’t.”  

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