A Woman of Color Cannot Save Your Workplace Culture

“The ideal candidate would be a woman of color.”

I’ve been hearing this from several hiring managers lately, and something about it wasn’t sitting well. On the one hand, workplaces are finally confronting the lack of diversity in their ranks and getting explicit and intentional about what they need to do. On the other: WTF? For decades, white managers ascended, wrote mission statements without centering equity, built teams off existing networks—and now they are ready to be inclusive?

The phenomenon isn’t new. Researchers call the expectations on women of color, specifically Black women, “superwoman schema”; others dub it an extension of “strong Black woman syndrome.” We cheer and tweet the heroics of women of color (from caregiving within their families to the loftier, say, saving of democracy by getting out the vote) without mentioning the toll this burden takes.

The idea of women of color now saving the modern workplace has renewed momentum thanks to the pandemic, the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and the presidential election. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris set a new standard for business,” said Dee C. Marshall, CEO of Diverse & Engaged, a training and consulting firm in Newark, NJ. “There’s a new model for leaders trying to operate with a multicultural lens. You’ve got to have your No. 2 be a Black woman or a woman of color.”

It can be a lonely existence. According to a new report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, one in eight women of color are a “double Only,” meaning the only woman and only person of their race or ethnicity in the room at work. At every step up the ladder, their numbers decline; while entry-level roles boast 17% women of color, their representation plummets to 4% in c-suite jobs.

And there’s some work to do for the people around them. “When you have almost 80% of white employees saying they see themselves as an ally, far less than half are confronting discrimination when they see it. Far less than a quarter are advocating for new opportunities for women of color or mentoring and sponsoring women of color,” Rachel Thomas, Lean In’s co-founder and CEO, told the Wall Street Journal. “So we see this pretty big gap right now between intent and action when it comes to women of color.”

That’s at the heart of why simply wanting us to fill your open role can feel insulting. Some hiring experts I interviewed for this piece also find the phrase “women of color” problematic, saying managers might want to hire a Black woman but are afraid to be specific. Others also point to the erasure of men of color in this rhetoric, when they face just as steep a climb.

“I have sat in rooms where people say ‘We need to hire a Black woman,’” said Sarah Green-Vieux, the chief impact officer at Kindred, a network of socially responsible business leaders. “It’s incredibly reductive. You’re reduced to your race and your gender … and you’re not being seen as the highly qualified candidate that you are.”

If the interview feels off

Her colleague Racquel Joseph, Kindred’s chief experience officer, cites interviews with “a lack of thoroughness in the vetting process” as a red flag. Once hired, “future co-workers were unaware of my experience because they didn’t ask those questions,” she said.

An example might be asking a woman of color a softball interview question like “How do you work with others?” versus seeking her perspective on team gaps, technical skills, and the mechanics of a role. “That lack of specificity then applies to how things are reported and measured,” Joseph said. She encourages managers in partnership with new hires to lay out clear responsibilities and examples of what success looks like.

Your culture needs an overhaul

A Woman of Color Cannot Save Your Workplace Culture

This points to another problem workplaces struggling to diversify might have: their culture. Some managers view hiring as the solution to their “diversity problem,” which—just to be clear—is a problem they created by not hiring inclusively to begin with. “One of the biggest challenges to come into a workspace where there isn’t a lot of diverse representation is that there isn’t a culture of admitting mistakes or giving feedback,” said Joseph. “Sometimes the feedback isn’t going to be about the report you did. It’s a comment you made or the way you made someone feel.”

Added Marshall: “You don’t need a diverse hire. You need a diverse culture.” A common mistake among managers is to look out onto a workplace of white men and think they need to fix this problem as fast and efficiently as possible. Thus, they focus on the outcome of hiring for an open position (a woman of color) rather than the process (a diverse candidate pool).

It’s in the process of hiring that an organization’s values and commitment to diversity become evident. Do you offer unsuccessful candidates feedback on why? Do you ensure a diverse slate of interviews? Are you targeting historically Black colleges or ethnic media with your job descriptions? Do you intend to stay in touch with diverse talent, beyond your need to hire them urgently for this role right now?

Why do you need a diversity hire? If you need just one, that’s a token. One is a token, two is a choir. You have three? That’s a voice,” said Marshall. She also says to hire recruitment firms run by people of color, partly to ensure that the candidates are not only being interviewed and evaluated by white managers.

To be sure, not all people found the language of explicitly seeking women of color to fill a job problematic.

“Let us in,” said Chloe Barzey, the managing director of the Atlanta office at Accenture and a global client account lead. “I don’t care if some people think it’s cosmetic, we will make it real. If we can get a toe in the door, we are going to work and if you are putting a woman in as a deputy, you are training her to be No. 1 at that company or somewhere else.”

How to support women of color

Lorie Valle-Yanez, MassMutual’s head of diversity, equity, and inclusion, sent me this useful checklist for how workplaces can better support women of color:

  • Seek to bring other women of color to the team so they are not the only one.
  • Invest the time to get to know and develop the women of color on your team.
  • Design assignments and opportunities that create visibility for women of color and access to leaders in other areas.
  • Be an advocate for women of color in your organization.
  • Provide informal mentoring and coaching to women of color to help them navigate your culture.
  • Listen and learn about the experiences of women of color at your company. Lean into discomfort to learn about and address systemic racism.
  • The need to hire, sponsor, and quickly promote them is a refrain among this talent pool.

    “Some managers may think that bringing women of color in for the No. 2 position is critical to ensuring organizations are advancing their DEI commitments,” says Mita Mallick, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Carta, a tech startup. “And it can be, if she is set up to be the only successor, and there is not a bait and switch that occurs where she does all of the work, and then someone else comes in to take the manager role when it becomes open.”

    Don’t do that. And be aware of the many, many demands on women of color, especially right now from home, their communities, their employers, their managers, and even other colleagues of color.

    Sometimes, the women and people of color “below you on the ladder expect you to fix the problems they experience and when you don’t—because you don’t agree or can’t because leadership is not a magic wand—they’re angrier with you than they are at white leadership,” said career coach Phoebe Gavin. “And you have to deal with that ALL while navigating whatever stereotype obstacle course you’ve been assigned.”

    The bottom line: if your ideal candidate is a woman of color, it means your workplace needs to work to make sure you are her ideal, too.

    This article is the first installment of a regular column by S. Mitra Kalita about work and management as part of a partnership between TIME and Charter focusing on the future of work. You can read more about the partnership here.

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