“It’s likely that your Black women colleagues are burnt out — from organizational and cultural stressors” according to a report released last month from Every Level Leadership, a professional training and coaching company focused on building a race equity culture in the workplace.
In a survey conducted by the organization, the majority of Black women respondents (88%) said they have sometimes, often, or always experienced workplace burnout, resulting from layered experiences of underrepresentation, undercompensation and various forms of exclusion.
More than a third (38.5%) of respondents aged 25 to 44, and 41% of those aged 45 to 59, reported “feeling happy at their current job.” The greatest satisfaction percentages were reported by respondents aged 18 to 24 and those over age 60, at 50% and 52%, respectively.
The report’s findings reflect responses from 1,431 Black women (cisgender and transgender) and gender-expansive professionals working in public, private and nonprofit sectors across the U.S.
“I don’t know how to describe what it means to thrive at work, but I know that I’m not. I’m focused on trying to survive,” said one focus-group participant noted in the report.
“Black women, at all levels of organizations, have to navigate workplace structures and cultures that were not built for us, a reality which is made clear in many implicit and explicit ways — through pay gaps, performance and promotion bias, a mentor and sponsorship gap, daily microaggressions, and discrimination,” authors wrote.
With 62% of respondents saying they’ve never had a Black manager, and more than half reporting that leadership rarely or never openly discuss issues of race and racism, the predominance of White workplace leadership is both seen and felt by Black women in these environments.
Low numbers of Black representation among colleagues and leaders at work contributes to the pressure to perform with perfection and excellence. Black excellence, a hashtag gone viral in recent years, is not only burdensome and harmful, but imbalanced, wrote Nathan Andrews, associate professor of political science at McMaster University, in an op-ed earlier this year. Such striving and social expectation is “...uncalled for, since there has never been the need to promote White excellence as a hashtag,” wrote Andrews.
Black women in the workplace want “to dispel stereotypes perpetuated by dominant society, to be accepted in predominantly white organizations,” according to the report, but these efforts run headlong into that “Black excellence fatigue” Andrews described and other obstacles such as those identified by Every Level Leadership: a negative workplace environment; bad relationships with manager, supervisors and/or leadership; and burnout.
The ongoing racial wealth gap is another element of labor driving burnout among Black women at work, both mentally and physically, according to the report. Workforce diversity remains most dense at the lowest ranks, where the priority is increased productivity, high profit, and low overhead, John Graham, author of "Plantation Theory: The Black Professional's Struggle Between Freedom and Security," told HR Dive. The construct of the American corporation is rooted in colonial practice and plantation structure, he said.
“It's not by accident that the breadth of organizational diversity is in low-level positions that carry low influence,” and this, said Graham, bridges American history to the modern-day lived experience of Black professionals.
It’s a reality made worse by the fact that the average White household possesses more than 10 times the wealth of the average Black household, according to 2020 data from a Brookings Institution initiative. It’s a measure that has worsened over the last 30 years. The Every Level Leadership report illuminates the broad spectrum of Black women’s undercompensation, in ways both quantifiable and not.
“Still, we survive workplace cultures that aren't made for us ... that are not welcoming to us. Until now, there has never been another option,” authors wrote. To address those issues, the report urges employers to adopt “thrive-centric” DEI centering this group in those environments.
It calls on employers to improve workplace satisfaction for Black women by learning from their experiences and from their unique needs, and to create strategies that are responsive to and inclusive of those needs.
Specifically, organizational leadership can make a shift in thinking about the function of the workplace, then check assumptions about how employees should perform in that space. Those in power should assume the role of cultural change agents, the report advised.
To start, the Black Women Thriving report suggests employers consider the ways that a “more thrive-centric model of DEI centering Black women” can be integrated to existing DEI actions.