What HR can do to keep Black women from leaving the workforce

“It’s exhausting being resilient all the time.”

That was what one woman of color told WerkLabs, the data and insights division of The Mom Project, a digital talent marketplace for working mothers, as the organization sought to uncover the ongoing impact of the pandemic on women.

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While women have borne the brunt of the pandemic-driven job losses over the last year, women of color in particular have been disproportionately impacted. For instance, in December, Black, Hispanic and Asian women comprised all of the job losses for women. While women of color are more likely to work in industries hard hit by the pandemic, and also less able to work from home–making a lack of childcare a definitive reason for decisions to leave the workforce–logistics alone aren’t driving the job losses.

“Two times as many women of color in our studies reported feeling as though their workplace was testing employees to see who persists, who remains resilient; that’s pretty huge,” says Dr. Pam Cohen, president of WerkLabs. About 20% more women of color say that their workplace assumes that, when they’re working from home, that means they have more time to work–despite competing responsibilities.

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With women of color less represented in leadership than white women or certainly men, and structural racism a reality in many workplaces, some women of color have been facing significant pressure to “prove” themselves throughout the challenges of the pandemic–all while projecting a positive, resilient faÁ§ade.

“It’s a feeling of always being on trial,” Cohen adds.

See also: How ‘bias in moments that matter’ hurts DEI recruiting efforts

Amber Joiner-Hill

That’s certainly not a new phenomenon, says Amber Joiner-Hill, owner and principal consultant at Magnolia Detroit Consulting, who spoke on the topic of women of color leaving the workforce during Augsburg University’s Forum on Workplace Inclusion earlier this month.

Joiner-Hill conducted a study of Black women who left the traditional workplace to start their own businesses–a demographic that has grown by 164% since 2007–and found that the gender wage gap and glass ceiling were just the start of what pushed them out of predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Here are just a few others:

  • Code-switching: Black women often have to undertake the chore of altering their dialect, demeanor, the way they dress to fit into a workplace that doesn’t represent them. “It’s done to make those around you comfortable,” Joiner-Hill says, based on the belief that your job is secure if your peers are comfortable with you. “It’s feeling like I have to wear a mask, almost like I have to pretend to be a different person to be respected,” one study participant told her.
  • Representation: When a workplace lacks true diversity, Black women often feel like they have to be a “good representative of all Black people” as well as a “cultural ambassador of all things Black,” Joiner-Hill says. One woman said it felt like she was working in a fishbowl at her PWI because everything she said and did was observed and given grand meaning by white colleagues. “Keeping up this performance is exhausting,” Joiner-Hill says, noting that her research found that this emotional weight caused women significant stress that affected their physical health.
  • Micro-aggressions: One of Joiner-Hill’s interviewees was told by a white female supervisor she needed to be “nicer and less assertive,” suggesting she was buying into the stereotype of Black women as “angry and militant.” Black women’s hair is also a frequent target; one woman said a colleague touched her hair and called it “cute.” “She can’t file a report because of how it made her feel so she had to put those feelings on a shelf. Eventually, this bookshelf gets full of feelings and experiences that are exceptionally difficult to describe to someone who never has been treated or perceived differently because of their racial identity,” she says. “So, something’s got to give: Either the work suffers or they leave.”

Employers looking to avoid those consequences have work to do, she says. White leaders and employees need to educate themselves on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism; don’t expect Black people to do the emotional labor of teaching these lessons. Provide Black women mentors to connect them with career development, sponsorship and advocacy. Create transparent and equal pay scales. And recognize that not all supervisors are true leaders, she says.

None of these ideas are “outlandish,” she notes. “But the consequence [of not taking action] is the loss of Black female employees who are ready to share innovative ideas and an unwavering work ethic to sustain your company.”

That should be of paramount importance to companies looking to bounce back after the pandemic, says Star Carter, co-founder, chief operating officer and general counsel at Kanarys, a DEI platform.

“The pandemic is highlighting the lack of support for mothers, especially women of color, and women’s return to work will be greatly threatened if we don’t reexamine our policies, both in our government and workplaces,” she says.

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To that end, this fall, The Mom Project launched the RISE initiative through its nonprofit arm, MomProject.org. The effort will provide scholarships for 10,000 women of color to pursue technology certificates over the next three years. Currently, there are 150 women across three tracks–Salesforce Administration, Google IT Support and Google IT Automation with Python–and the organization soon will launch Project Management, Data Analysis and UX Design tracks. The upskilling courses can be completed in six weeks and are structured to allow women to remain at their full-time jobs and maintain their childcare and other responsibilities.

“Let’s start committing and acting, not just giving lip service to this escalating issue of supporting women and caregivers in the workplace,” says Allison Robinson, The Mom Project CEO and founder.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].