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Women standing below a concrete ceiling and one woman climbing ladder through ceiling

(Illustration by Nyanza D)

I have spent more than six years working in the technology space as a user-experience researcher and designer. As an immigrant, Muslim-identifying, Iranian-Canadian woman, it didn’t take long to notice that the workplace environments I found myself in were not designed for me, and therefore did not support my career growth and ambition, or accommodate for my unique needs as a woman of color.

For years, companies have framed diversity in tech as a “pipeline” problem—that the reason for the lack of diversity is due to there not being enough qualified talent from different backgrounds. This claim is not only untrue but also dismisses the effects of racism on people’s careers.

This Is What Racism Looks Like

This Is What Racism Looks Like

This series aims to explain how racism operates within organizations and create conversation about racial justice, dignity, and belonging.

Years of workplace anxiety and discrimination have made me realize that the tech industry’s current challenge is not hiring women of color in technology, it’s keeping us there. A 2019 study from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) found that although the number of women in computing professions has increased since 2017, so has the number of women who leave tech companies and careers.

This should not come as a shock when we think about the systemic discrimination of our patriarchal society and the ways in which it manifests in the tech ecosystem, disproportionately affecting underrepresented women. Unwelcoming environments, stereotypes, and being overlooked for promotions are just some of the reasons women of color leave the sector. Microaggressions, unconscious bias, and lack of representation are effective in upholding and enabling racism and discrimination in the workplace, and women of color regularly endure mansplaining, interruptions, and inappropriate compensation in an industry that has not done enough to level the playing field.

In this article, I explore the barriers to career success that stand in the way of women of color by analyzing how the concepts of “double jeopardy” and “the concrete ceiling” manifest in organizations. I also offer actionable ways in which we can begin to better support women of color in the workplace, across industries and disciplines, in the hope of creating more equitable and inclusive spaces.

The Double Whammy of Discrimination

Double jeopardy” was coined by Black feminist activist Frances M. Beal to describe the simultaneous forms of sexism and racism experienced by Black women, and women of color more broadly. Beal’s acclaimed 1969 essay weaves in class analysis and examines the economic exploitation of Black women. It also exposes the ideology that the more an individual is marginalized, the more likely they are to be exploited.

Research has shown how double jeopardy negatively affects the professional lives of women of color. In their 2006 report in The Journal of Applied Psychology, Jennifer L. Berdahl and Celia Moore use the concept of double jeopardy to shed light on women of color’s experiences of racism and misogyny, and explain that the compound effect of these experiences is lower paying, fewer prestigious, and fewer powerful jobs than white men.

The number of women of color in top-level executive positions reflects this impact. According to a 2020 report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, women of color comprise only 4 percent of C-level positions despite representing approximately 18 percent of the US population. This stands in sharp contrast to white men, who account for 68 percent of these positions but represent only 31 percent of the US population. White women make up 19 percent of these positions while also representing approximately 30 percent of the US population.

The factors preventing women of color from advancing at work are significantly different from those holding back white women and men of color. For instance, Black women are held at higher standards than their white male and female peers; Native American women suffer from one of the largest pay gaps; and employers are less likely to hire Middle Eastern women who wear a headscarf than other applicants.

The Impenetrable Barrier

For women of color, the “glass ceiling” metaphor doesn’t cut it. Rather, we face a “concrete ceiling.” Aspen Institute’s Jasmine Babers explains: “Similar to the glass ceiling, the concrete ceiling is a barrier for success. The difference between the two terms is that the concrete ceiling is a term specifically made for women of color.”

The “concrete ceiling” more accurately depicts the reality of what women of color experience—experiences that have been too often ignored—than the “glass ceiling.” The origins of the term can be traced to Victoria Sepand’s 2015 thesis on “The Black Ceiling,” a study conducted on the barriers to US Black women’s career advancement, due to the double discrimination they face in organizations’ cultures, policies, and practices.

And it’s not only that the ceiling is impenetrable; the metaphorical concreteness of Black women’s experience clouds their ability to see what is possible. “The term ‘glass ceiling’ originated because you could look through it and see what was possible, but you hit against a barrier as you pushed up, so the aspiration was there and the expectation was there,” says Ilene Lang, retired president, CEO, and honorary director of the nonprofit Catalyst. “But think about a concrete ceiling—if you’re in a bunker, you don’t even know there’s a sky out there.”

The ramifications of double jeopardy and the concrete ceiling in the professional lives of women of color are seemingly endless. White standards of professionalism, leadership norms and biases, emotional and mental exhaustion, and the lack of management support are just some of the ways individuals and organizations uphold racism in the workplace.

The Barriers of ‘Professionalism’

In February 2021, Thasunda Brown Duckett became the second Black woman to serve as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in the United States. Despite well-intentioned efforts to advance diversity, inclusion, and equity in workplaces, stories like this stand to be the measure of who sits at the top of the corporate ladder—where women of color remain severely underrepresented.

Our systems, institutions, and workplace cultures were not built with women of color in mind. Navigating these environments therefore proves incredibly challenging, because we are held to standards of professionalism defined by white, heterosexual, cisgender men, who regard the standards they have established as the “norm.”

From leadership qualities to performance reviews, our metrics for evaluating competence, skill level, and potential are centered on whiteness and are heavily skewed to favor masculinity. (It is important to note the gender bias at work here, which favors men who are perceived to embody traits stereotyped as “masculine”; women are not “likable” or respected when, for example, we speak with authority or express our ambition.) Subtle yet pervasive doubts about competence, intelligence, and skill unrelated to actual performance are common struggles for women of color, and function as barriers to career advancement. These manifest most dramatically in perceptions of leadership.

Leadership Norms and Biases

From large enterprises to small businesses, management teams remain predominantly led by white men, who instantiate the culture and values of that organization and of the sector at large. This value system includes a definition of leadership that is one dimensional and prejudiced.

In a Harvard Business Review article, social justice scholar Marlette Jackson and strategy firm ModelExpand CEO Paria Rajai argue that our standards of who and what leadership looks like often ignore women of color, and instead favor Western credentials and attributes largely embodied by white men. These include being competitive, dominant, objective, aggressive, and masculine. There is yet again a double disadvantage here: Women of color don’t fit companies’ measures for leadership, because those measures were developed in the mold of white men.

There are three significant consequences of this double disadvantage:

  • The discourse—and, even more, the external expectation—that women of color need to work twice as hard as others to succeed. This leads to burnout and working on projects that are outside of our roles (with no extra pay or renumeration), and potentially contributes to mental health issues.
  • Imposter syndrome, or the self-doubt that undermines professional confidence and downplays one’s professional accomplishments as fraudulent. This syndrome is disproportionately experienced by women of color, in part because we are underrepresented in the workplace, causing us to feel like we don’t belong.
  • Women of color experience tone policing based on both racial and gender stereotypes. Black women are often called “angry,” and women seeking leadership positions are often labeled “too emotional.” This language can prevent women of color from professional advancement, being regarded as experts in our field, and/or simply being heard, recognized, and valued.

Ultimately, these outcomes perpetuate the notion that leadership roles are not attainable for women of color, and that we inherently do not have the qualities and potential required to break through the standards that we are measured against.

This creates a massive burden on women of color to constantly outperform and “prove ourselves” in order to be recognized and promoted. It creates an unfair environment that not only casts us aside, but also penalizes us because we do not fit the mold.

The Burden of the ‘Emotional Tax’

In addition to microaggressions, gaslighting, tone policing, and other forms of questioning a woman of color’s “cultural fit,” navigating a system that excludes us and upholds workplace biases jeopardizes not only our careers but also our sense of belonging and psychological safety.

Add to this the mental and emotional burden of working in hostile work environments, it should not come as a surprise that women of color are leaving the tech workforce in alarming numbers. We never felt we belonged in the first place.

In her article on ambient belonging, sociologist Sapna Cheryan argues that while stereotypes affect the retention of women in technical fields, they also work as barriers that prevent women from developing an interest in these fields. “Women’s interest in computer science will depend on the portrayal of computer science environments,” Cheryan explains. “Stereotypical computer science environments will discourage women’s interest in computer science more than non-stereotypical computer science environments.” She argues that altering the environments in which women find themselves can increase their interest in the field.

A lifetime of being marginalized can have detrimental effects on an individual’s sense of belonging, overall mental, and psychological health. Acting as an invisible weight at work, this level of exclusion manifests mentally, emotionally, and physically. A report from Catalyst called this an “emotional tax,” defined as “the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity and the associated effects on health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work.”

An important aspect of emotional tax is the state of being on guard. For women of color, being consciously prepared to deal with potential bias or discrimination is a daily reality due to the fear of being stereotyped, receiving unfair treatment, and feeling “othered”—marginalized and dehumanized. The report found that employees who feel on guard are most likely to face challenges that affect their well-being and are more inclined to leave their employers.

Lack of Management Support

Leadership and management teams across industries, not just in tech, have not been successful in acknowledging the long-term effects of racial and gender discrimination on the day-to-day lives of women of color. Additionally, they have not created pathways to remove the many roadblocks that affect the careers and well-being of women of color.

What’s most alarming is that women of color receive less support from their managers, lacking the necessary mentorship and recognition that is crucial to getting ahead. According to the same McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org report, although it is not always a conscious decision by managers, women of color often report to bosses who are less likely to promote their work and contributions, help them navigate organizational politics, or socialize with them outside of work.

Women of color do not lack ambition or confidence; we are often reporting to managers who do not support us in overcoming the challenges that stand in the way of our career growth and advancement. Because of this, we are often left out of the networks that could help us move forward in our careers.

A study by the International Labour Organization reported that unconscious bias is a significant barrier to women’s career advancement. A key factor remains to be the lack of opportunity to lead or participate in important projects that can increase employee visibility and competitiveness for promotion. Often referred to “stretch projects,” these opportunities can open many doors for women of color, allowing us to grow and rise in the ranks.

The decision about who should be assigned to these projects lies in the hands of senior executives, who are for the most part white and male. Coupled with research that has shown that white Americans have, on average, 91 times as many white friends as Black friends, white and male leaders promote employees similar to how they choose friends. In other words, when it comes to sponsorship, leaders and managers are more likely to search for employees like them—those who look like them and/or who have with similar life experiences. Consequently, this reinforces existing gender and racial biases.

Women of color often do not receive the level of support they need to advance professionally. Two prevalent forms of this lack of support are:

  • Not Strategic | In the tech space, women are commonly passed over for promotions or projects because we’re not deemed “strategic,” meaning that we are judged as not having the potential to create a broader impact. This hinders our career trajectory and limits the possibility of creating more diversity in key decision-making roles.
  • No Actionable Feedback | The frequently and form or style in which women of color receive feedback illustrates the lack of management support. Research has shown that feedback towards women is less actionable and useful for leadership progression than feedback given to men. In addition, many women receive criticism based on personality rather than job-related skills, making us less likely to advance to senior positions.

We can’t even begin to think of cracking the concrete ceiling unless we put the responsibility on our current leaders to do the work. It’s time we unlearn our definitions of leadership and diversify our methods for supporting women of color.

Creating More Equitable Workplaces

Diversity initiatives have failed and strategies around inclusivity have not yielded the intended results. It’s not difficult to see that retention is a significant factor in this failure.

Companies need to ask questions about their leadership’s commitment to change. Are we doing enough to redesign our workplaces, policies, and practices to accommodate for all individuals? Are those in positions of power really listening, speaking up, challenging the status quo, and using their privilege to promote a culture of belonging, and inclusivity? And are we holding our leaders and organizations accountable when measures and targets put in place have not been achieved?

Below are five actionable ways that leaders and management teams can begin to level the playing field for women of color:

  • Expand your definition of leadership. Question your biases and promote women of color based on actual credentials, skills, and potential. Look beyond your own networks and alliances when advocating for leadership positions and provide women of color with opportunities to lead and work on stretch projects. This is incredibly important if we want to see greater representation in senior positions.
  • Be fearless in your allyship. Being an ally takes hard work and intentionality, and leaders need to educate themselves on what it means to be an effective ally. Be the first to speak up when you recognize microaggressions in the workplace; chances are that a white man who speaks up faces fewer consequences than a woman of color.
  • Hold leaders accountable. Historically, we have not done enough to ensure that the revision and development of new policies and practices to support women of color are effective. Individuals and organizations must be held accountable if we want to truly enable diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
  • Don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Instead, embrace the tension and acknowledge that the first step to creating a more equitable workplace begins with accepting that there is a problem. White fragility should have no space in this conversation. Start by listening to and affirming the experiences of women of color. Leaders should aim to normalize conversations about gender, race, and ethnicity.
  • Recognize and celebrate the contributions of women of color. This is essential. Recognition doesn’t mean advice or praise; it means advocacy, promotion, and mentorship. Be mindful of the names you promote and carry with you behind closed doors, and ensure that women of color are valued for their efforts.

To My Fellow Women of Color

Your experiences are real, and they need to be validated. The system has failed us, and despite our resilience and ambition, we are struggling with the limitations of our workplace structures and cultures. The current standards for professionalism exclude us, and our senior leadership teams have not been successful in supporting us in our career growth. So, what do we do now?

Based on my own experience and research, I offer three pathways to focus on:

  1. Power of Community | Building a support system is crucial to balancing feelings of marginalization with a sense of belonging. Establishing relationships is essential to building these networks, and being a part of communities where individuals have similar experiences is incredibly helpful to feeling heard and valued.
  2. Mentorship | Bespoke mentorship for women of color that takes into consideration our lived experiences is a useful strategy to fight against workplace barriers. Finding like-minded mentors who can create a safe space and provide advice and feedback on how to navigate workplace cultures can be incredibly helpful.
  3. Self-care | This is a long and burdensome road. As Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde told us, self-care is a political act, and it’s crucial that as women of color we claim autonomy over our health in the face of a system that historically has not tended to our needs. Taking the time needed to heal and reflect is imperative to being able to re-engage in challenging the status quo in a sustainable way.

We must work together not just to crack the concrete ceiling but to destroy it. Only then can we begin to see the benefits of truly inclusive and equitable workplaces that value and support all of us.

 

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