The Status of Women of Color in the Workplace

The changing demographics of women of color

Did you know that by 2060, women of color will make up the majority of all women in the United States – with the greatest representation coming from Latina/x, Black, Asian and Native women, respectively? And while, as of 2020, women of color only made up 18% of entry-level positions in the workforce, their representation at work is projected to increase rapidly in the decades to come. For example, the workforce representation of Latina/x women is projected to grow by 25.8% between 2019-2029. 

Challenges in the workplace

While women of color continue to make up a larger and larger portion of the workforce, they still face significant challenges navigating the workplace. For them, it can often be described as a minefield, fraught with politics, biases, discrimination, and microaggressions. Being both a woman and a woman of color has been referred to as a “double-bind.” With this intersection of identities, they often confront a number of unique challenges in the workplace. And in studies large and small, it’s been found that the everyday experiences of women of color are not improving. They face more challenges and get less support than others at work.

While highly talented, many women of color leave their jobs due to a lack of support for their advancement and, in many cases, workplace bias that stands in the way of opportunities, preventing them from growing in their careers and having a negative effect on their well-being. Not only do they suffer, their previous employers do as well, as they lose talented employees when they can little afford to do so.

Two roadblocks that especially hinder women of color in the workplace are stereotypes and microaggressions. In 2015, a survey by Smithsonian Magazine showed almost half of Black and Latina/x female scientists reported being mistaken for a janitor or administrative assistant at work. And as with all women, women of color are more likely to experience microaggressions than men, and they experience them at a higher rate, which reinforces harmful stereotypes and casts the group as outsiders. 

These experiences take a toll: women of color are twice as likely to be burned out, more than twice as likely to report feeling negatively about their job, and almost three times as likely to say they’ve struggled to concentrate at work in the past few months due to stress. 

Spotlight on women of color in the media

Historically, women of color have most often appeared in movies and TV shows as the best friend, the sidekick, and the comic relief. Most women of color have had small storylines with almost no character development. This contributed to the stereotype that women of color are unable to hold positions of power and are not equal to others. However, this is beginning to change in the media.

Albeit slowly, headway has been made for women of color as film directors. According to a 2020 article published by Women’s Media Center (WMC), “Women comprised 18% of directors working on the top 250 films in 2020, up from 13% in 2019 and 8% in 2018. The percentages of women directing top 100 and top 250 films represent recent historic highs and also reflect two consecutive years of growth.” It’s also notable that Chloe Zhao took home the Oscar for best director in 2021, the first Asian woman and first woman of color to do so.

Overcoming barriers

While progress is being made in some arenas, such as media, there is still a long way to go before women of color can reach their full potential in the workforce. Given that they increasingly make up a larger portion of the workforce, this becomes increasingly important for organizations to address. Employers need to invest more in DEI programs to ensure women of color are empowered, valued, have pathways to advancement and are compensated fairly. 

Sponsorship, mentoring and allyship programs are often cited as being effective in helping others overcome barriers at work. Many women of color are participating in such programs. Per a study of nearly 150 post-secondary educated women of color in diverse industries, more than 50% had a sponsor, mentor or ally. 

But having a sponsor, mentor or ally is one thing. Having an influential sponsor, mentor or ally is another. Unfortunately, the latter are lacking in number. A study of more than 750 companies and more than a quarter of a million people conducted by LeanIn between 2015-2021 found that although the number of white allies had increased, the number of key allyships hadn’t. Sponsorship, mentorship and allyship for women in general, and women of color in particular, need to begin at the top as well as at the managerial level in order to have lasting effect in an organization. 

By empowering all women, we make strides toward eliminating negative stereotypes and initiating positive change in the workplace for all. Much work remains to be done and each organization needs to critically assess its own workforce and workplace before determining which strategies to develop and implement for helping their women of color succeed long term. For when women of color succeed, we all succeed.