A woman of color works at her desk taking notes on a project.

Women of Color Undervalued Despite DEI Focus

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become top priorities for corporate America following the racial equity movements of 2020. 

Companies realize that not only is DEI the right thing to do, but they are also mindful of the positive impact DEI can have on their business and employee morale. 

Yet, two years later, women of color are still undervalued in the workplace. Women of color are underrepresented in leadership positions and continue to face pay inequality. They also report a lack of allies in the workplace, increased microaggressions and feelings of burnout. 

Lack of Diversity at the Top 

In 2021, Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance (No. 39 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021) and Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA, made history when they became the only two Black women CEOs in the Fortune 500. 

In a 2021 interview with DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson, Duckett said her appointment to TIAA CEO (No. 9 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021) highlights the need for more diverse leadership.

“I understand that this moment that I have requires me to make sure I do everything I can so that those behind me can be the fifth, the sixth, the tenth, the 50th Black woman. The second, the third, the fifth, the tenth Latina,” she says. “Representation at the highest levels in all forms — across all different spaces and places — that’s the mission.”  

According to Catalyst, a global nonprofit that seeks to advance women in leadership, women of color are still the most underrepresented group on Fortune 500 boards, with white men holding the majority of seats. Catalyst highlights four actions that are needed to improve the number of women of color on company boards:

  • Set specific gender, race, and ethnicity goals to drive results and measure the progress.
  • Mitigate bias in the selection progress by ensuring the nominating panel is diverse and understanding the role of unconscious bias. 
  • Build a pipeline of women of color by making it everyone’s job to track the careers of women of color and cast a wider net for potential candidates. 
  • Develop a targeted sponsorship program and back women of color for board service.

Unequal Pay

There’s no way around it — women are paid less for the same jobs as men. It’s even worse for women of color because of the double whammy of racism and sexism. And the losses can grow over time. 

According to the National Women’s Law Center, while a woman can lose $406,280 over a 40-year career because of the wage gap, the typical lifetime loss for Hispanic women is $1.2 million. Native American women are estimated to lose $986,240, Black women $964,400, and Asian women $400,000. 

Ariane Hunter, speaker, author, and founder of My Mentors Circle, an organization that helps women advance their careers with mentorship, says pay transparency laws will go a long way in helping to bridge the wage gap.

“Before we start the application process, we can actually see the numbers and see how much that aligns with what our needs are,” Hunter says. “It helps to level the playing field so that we understand that candidates are being offered the same rates, regardless of background and credentials.”

California, Maryland, and Washington are among the states that have laws prohibiting employers from asking applicants about their salary history and requiring employers to include compensation in job postings.

Lack of Allyship

While most employees consider themselves allies to women of color, most white employees haven’t spoken out against racial discrimination at work, according to research from LeanIn. That leaves Black women and Latinas feeling they don’t have strong allies at work. 

Karen Fichuk, CEO at Randstad, North America (No. 30 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021), recalled a life-changing experience in a 2021 interview with DiversityInc’s Johnson.

“Very early in my career, I was in a position where I observed racism in the workplace,” she says. “I watched a white female supervisor from the Southside of Chicago treat a Black subordinate unfairly. And while I tried to help the victim, I didn’t speak up, and she eventually left the organization. I still remember her face. I still remember her name.”

Fichuk says the experience drives her to be a better ally to women of color. She suggests allies do the following:

  • Expand their networks to include women of color.
  • Find commonalities with the women of color they are trying to support and understand their struggles. 
  • Ask questions and avoid the fear that they will say something wrong.
  • Move beyond giving advice and take steps like introducing women of color to their network or creating a job within their organization. 

Frequent Microaggressions 

Microaggressions are those subtle insults and invalidations that marginalized groups often experience — like people expressing surprise at how well they speak, being interrupted or spoken over more than others, or having their judgment questioned.  

Despite the increased focus on DEI, the frequency and types of microaggressions that women of color experience are the same as two years ago, according to 2021 research from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org.  

Black women, who are often double “onlys” for their race – meaning that they are the only people of their race or gender in the room – tend to have worse encounters at work.

“It really does depend on the culture of the workplace,” Karen Pavlin, North America Inclusion & Diversity Lead at Accenture (No. 2 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021) said at a 2021 DiversityInc panel

“Are we building that culture where people are feeling brave enough to say this is not okay? Or are people capable of recognizing if this is a bias?” she asks. “It’s building awareness for marginalized groups that are facing biases in the workplace, and then you look for ways to check your own preconceived notions of people around you.” 

Increased Burnout

Women of color are exhausted. 

They are overworked and underpaid, and many of them find it hard to get a raise or promotion. Despite the increased focus on racial equity and DEI, women of color lack active allies and continue to face discrimination at work. And the stress is taking a toll. 

A 2021 study from Fairygodboss and nFormation found that nearly half of employed women of color feel burnt out and are thinking of leaving their jobs. 

When asked what their company could do or has done to make them stay, the top reasons cited were a raise or promotion, more time off or a flexible work policy. 

It was 2017 when Lajuanda M. Asemota reached her breaking point. 

Asemota, who was leading DEI for a tech startup, says she felt overworked and faced wage discrimination. Asemota, who suffers from an autoimmune condition, was so stressed her body gave out. 

“I couldn’t work, and it forced me to go on medical leave,” she says. “That medical leave was the beginning of my eight-month sabbatical.” 

Asemota, CEO and co-founder of Second Chance Studios, a nonprofit digital media company that trains and employs formerly incarcerated individuals, says companies should allow employees to take sabbaticals non-contingent on tenure. If companies see one person contributing more at work than they should, leaders should offer workers the ability to take a breather. She says women of color should also take ownership of their health by taking breaks often.  

If you feel undervalued and at the end of your rope, Asemota recommends going directly to your company and voicing your concerns.

“It’s going to sound corny, but know that you are worth it and deserve more,” she says. “If your intuition is telling you that you are being undervalued, don’t be afraid to put that on the table. Turn the question back to the organization and how they are going to rectify that.”


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