How To Support Women of Colour in the Workplace
Gain a fundamental understanding of disadvantages BIPOC women face in the workplace with expert insight from a registered practitioner.

Written by Mackenzie Patterson

Published on March 3, 2022
Three smiling Black women sit at a board table in and office.

Women still face unique challenges in the workplace today. However, being a woman of colour (WOC) adds another layer of disadvantage that can make it even more challenging to succeed at work.

It’s time we recognize the systemic barriers standing in the way for WOC. In this article, we’ll explore why it can be more difficult for WOC to succeed in the workplace and how we can come together to support them in the face of injustice, inequity and bias.

What are some of the disadvantages women of colour face in the workplace?

Tricia-Kay Williams is a Registered Clinical Counselor and a WOC on the Inkblot platform. She also owns Metamorphose Counselling, a private practice specializing in counselling individuals, couples, and families. Regarding the disadvantages women of colour face in the workplace, she says that it can be more challenging to ensure their voices are heard due to the internalized biases many of their colleagues hold.

“I would say one thing is that for many WOC, their input may be overlooked,” she says. “For example, if you’re in a meeting and you’re not being called upon or something you say is dismissed.”

It’s complex, but Williams explains that the problem is linked to the systemic issues of gender bias and racism in our society. 

“We know women are overlooked in the workplace, and male voices are generally celebrated and heard in most spaces. But add the racial component to it, and if you’re looking at a ladder, women of colour are diminished to an even lower rung,” Williams explains. 

  • According to McKinsey & Company’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, WOC represented only four per cent of C-suite leaders in corporate America
  • A survey conducted by Randstad Canada in 2021 found that 63 per cent of women had been told that they had the same opportunities as men but did not believe this was the case, in reality,
  • The Randstad survey also found that 66 per cent of women had witnessed or been personally affected by bias in the form of microaggressions, lack of flexibility, fewer opportunities and less equal pay at work
  • It also found that 46 per cent of WOC felt their salary was disproportionate to others with similar responsibilities
  • And finally, 46 per cent of women found they were being passed over for promotions, while 63 per cent of WOC felt the same 

Understanding the impact of microaggressions in the workplace

Another way internalized bias and systemic racism can commonly manifest in the workplace are through microaggressions. 

What is a microaggression?

As Williams explains, microaggressions refer to the subtle comments, questions or actions that reveal an attitude of bias or discrimination against BIPOC communities. Although these microaggressions may not be as overt as a racist slur or a physical attack, Williams explains that they can be equally harmful.

“A microaggression is a covert way of making someone feel discriminated against or marginalized. An example of a microaggression could be that maybe you did a presentation, for example, and someone will walk up to you and say, ‘oh wow, that was actually amazing,’ sounding very surprised,” Williams says. “So, a microaggression can feel very ingenuine, or it could even come across as rude.”

This is only one example of the way a microaggression towards a WOC might play out in the workplace, but these subtle displays of discrimination could manifest in many other ways. Although people may mistakenly believe microaggressions to be harmless or insignificant, in reality, these interactions have the potential to cause serious psychological harm to WOC.

For example, a 2021 systematic review of 138 articles exploring racial microaggressions found that these experiences can lead to stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression or even suicidal thoughts for people of colour (POC). The data has also shown that microaggressions can be linked to physical symptoms like stomach aches and high blood pressure, and an increased risk of alcohol and tobacco use.

Microaggressions ultimately prevent POC from feeling safe at work, which can lead to high turnover rates and an inability to meet their fullest potential in the long run.

What can organizations do to address and eliminate microaggressions in the workplace? 

Recognizing microaggressions in the workplace is the first step towards eliminating them. Williams says that in many cases, microaggressions result from internalized bias that people may not realize they’ve been harbouring in the first place, which is why education is such an essential piece of the puzzle.

Williams suggests exploring resources like Lean In’s 50 Ways to Fight Bias, a digital program that helps people combat the biases women face in the workplace or Allyship at Work.

Other than education and training resources, Williams notes that it’s important to encourage people at work to stay open and listen to voices from diverse backgrounds. Remaining intentional and inviting everyone to weigh in on the discussion will lead to positive action steps in the future. 

“If people are able to feel a sense of safety at work, then they’ll be more likely to be open to sharing,” Williams says. “It’s about creating an atmosphere where people are willing to speak out when something isn’t right and advocate for one another.”

What does Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) mean in the Workplace?

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has become a major buzzword today. But what does it really mean to embody these ideals on a daily basis? At its core, DEI is about humanizing people, says Williams. “It’s the idea that everybody is a human being deserving of care and respect, despite where they come from, who they choose to love or what they look like,” she says.

While DEI is often used as a catch-all term, it’s important to remember that each of the three terms has a distinct meaning. Williams offered a breakdown of each of the three pillars of DEI, and why each is crucial to the conversation.

When it comes to diversity, Williams explains that bringing together different backgrounds, voices, and perspectives helps businesses generate new ideas and ultimately thrive. She notes that in recent years, many organizations have stepped up to do their research, listen to their employee base and recognize that focusing on diversity will enrich the company.

Although it’s a different concept altogether, a focus on inclusion also has the power to help businesses thrive. From Williams’s perspective, inclusion is about representation, which means a company’s employee base and branding materials should essentially reflect the races, cultures and other identifiers that make up our broader society.

As for equity, Williams emphasized the importance of distinguishing between equity and equality, which are often used interchangeably but have different meanings. While equality refers to the concept of allocating the same amount of resources to people of all genders, cultures and sexual identities, equity means recognizing the differences between us all so we can allocate resources in a way that takes inherent inequalities into account.

Learn more about what Diversity, Equality and Inclusion mean in the workplace

How to Support BIPOC Women in the workplace 

Once we’ve recognized the realities of inequity in the workplace, what can we do to better support BIPOC women or anyone else who may feel underrepresented, discriminated against or marginalized?

Having the ability to self-reflect, see beyond our personal paradigms and think critically about where the power lies within our societal structures is a great place to start. From that place of awareness, we’ll be better equipped to take action and speak up when we recognize something isn’t right.

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Disclaimer: This article contains guidelines or advice not intended to self-diagnose or treat. No content should be used as a substitute for direct advice from a qualified professional such as your doctor or mental health professional. Please reach out for support with a certified professional related to the symptoms you may be experiencing.

If you are in crisis and require immediate support, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Alternately, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1 833 456-4566 (en tout temps). 1-833-456-4566 (24/7). For residents of Québec, call1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277-3553).

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