Billie Jean King: How business leaders can be stronger allies for women of color

Billie Jean King: How business leaders can be stronger allies for women of color

At the age of 13, I saw Althea Gibson play at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. She showed me what being No. 1 in the world looked like, and I knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps from that day forward. She epitomized “if you can see it, you can be it,” and watching her play tennis changed my world forever.

At the time, I thought I understood the gravity of all the barriers she broke — including being the first Black woman to win a major tennis title — but in hindsight, I knew very little about the challenges she faced in the real world. The fact is that in the nearly 65 years since she was a “first,” there are still so many barriers to knock down, especially in the so-called modern working world.

This has never been more apparent than with women of color and their experiences in workplaces today. They haven’t enjoyed the same overall career gains and compensation that White women have in recent years. A new survey of more than 1,500 working women from the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and nFormation found that:

  • 57% of women of color feel damaging stereotypes have hurt their careers (those such as Asian women don’t want to be in the spotlight, Black women are angry and Latinas are too passionate)
  • 70% say they must prove themselves repeatedly
  • 66% say they lack sponsors in the workplace

Compared to White women, women of color are:

  • 25% less likely to say they are fairly compensated
  • 15% less likely to feel their supervisors respect their opinions
  • 19% less likely to feel that their skills are valued and leveraged

So while companies have been working to make changes to attract and retain women of color, they are actually losing ground — from the entry level to the C-suite. Compounding this problem are the number of women of color leaving (or being forced out of) workforces today because of the trauma and burnout they are facing. McKinsey’s recent Women in the Workplace report found that women of color are more likely than White women to experience disrespectful microaggressions, and that women who experience microaggressions on a regular basis are more likely to get burned out than those who don’t.

So what do we do?

We need to listen to our sisters of color and we need to support them. We must move from being bystanders and even allies to being active participants and champions in advancing change.

Business leaders, meanwhile, have a strong role to play. They must create systems, policies and cultures that lead to happier employees, increased retention, and fairer hiring and advancement opportunities. There are actionable steps they can take to be part of the solution:

Be better mentors and sponsors

Only 9% of the White women leaders surveyed said they currently sponsor a woman of color in their company. But mentorships and sponsorships can be transformational for women, both formally and informally. Informally, they help mentees better understand the company’s culture and office politics. And formally, they pave the way for more supporters in the room when it comes to things like reviews and pay raises.

Provide equal pay

The women of color we met are less likely to feel they are rewarded fairly compared to the White women we spoke to. Leaders must take steps to ensure equal pay for equal work at all levels of the organization, and hold themselves accountable through independent pay audits. Don’t just tell employees how you’ve defined equal pay — show them. Marc Benioff at enterprise software company Salesforce is a great example. He commissioned an audit of employees’ salaries that found there were pay discrepancies between men and women at the company, and raised pay for 6% of employees to adjust for the gaps.

Value all types of experiences

More than 60% of the women of color we met are not satisfied with their rate of advancement. When considering women of color for promotions, leaders should place more value on the challenges and life experiences that they have overcome outside of the workplace. It’s often said men are hired on potential while women are hired on performance. Let’s shift that mindset. Many of the women we meet are “firsts” like Althea. Leaders should value and reward that.

Listen

Companies must establish better processes to investigate racism and discrimination at work. It is overwhelming to think that 97% of women of color feel that their companies do not have a good process in place for reporting discrimination. Leaders must listen when women of color report discrimination, do a better job at investigating their reports, and stop ignoring the bad actors who drive them from workplaces through non-inclusive behavior and get away with it because of the short-term profits they represent.

The time to act is now. If we don’t, we will be missing out on an opportunity to create and maintain a workplace that is fair, reflective of society and profitable. By standing together, we can have a future that’s stronger than anything we thought possible.

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