By Sherri Kolade
This is the final story in a two-part series that discusses diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), how Black women as a double minority are operating at work in this space, and the challenges they face, especially in the corporate world.
“We must reject not only the stereotypes that others hold of us, but also the stereotypes that we hold of ourselves,” said the late Shirley Chisholm, former Congresswoman representing New York’s 12th Congressional District Her statement still holds true today in all areas of life, especially while working as a Black woman.
Black women are a double minority, and the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space has more than enough love to give to employees as companies and corporations are leading these conversations and making a way for everyone to feel included, especially in a post-George Floyd era which influenced DEI efforts to ramp up locally and nationwide.
More Than a Moment
Angela Thompkins, vice president and chief diversity officer at Consumers Energy, said that their Jackson-based company feels that their DEI isn’t a moment but “a movement.”
“We’re excited by all that we’ll learn together on our DE&I journey,” Thompkins said in a statement to the Michigan Chronicle. “We’re also inspired by a vision for the future in which the ideas and contributions of all are heard, valued and celebrated.”
However, despite the best DEI intentions, Black women in the workspace have still faced their share of challenges, including discriminatory practices against how they wear their hair resulting in the Crown Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair).
The Crown Act is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination — a denial of employment and educational opportunities because of one’s hair texture or protective hairstyles like braids, locs, twists, or Bantu knots. The Crown Act’s website states that Black women are 30% more likely to be made aware of a workplace policy, which are forms of microaggression.
First introduced in California in January 2019, the Crown Act was signed into law the same year on July 3.
Beyond wearing natural hair, some Black women and men have even learned to project a certain tone in the workplace (known as code-switching) to come across as more professional, especially with working with other groups of people.
Ashanti Bland, Southfield Public Schools’ Board of Education vice president, told the Michigan Chronicle previously that she code switches when she finds herself in more professional environments to adapt her communication style and/or vernacular and “to best fit the tone of the discussion” of her audience.
“In meetings with team members from the corporate side, I tended to speak with a more monotone inflection, using less slang, and perhaps the annunciation of my words [were] more defined and clear,” she said. “Quite frankly, I’ve seen many professionals — both POC and non-POC, men, women, and CEOs alike — adapt their speech and communication styles based on their environment.”
Showing up to work as one’s full, authentic self as a woman, a Black woman at that, is something not always easy for an employee who does not feel supported culturally, even with diversity initiatives in place.
Missing the Mark?
Beyond DEI initiatives, juggling multiple responsibilities, like childcare, have forced many Black mothers to face tough decisions surrounding staying at work while handling childcare, especially during the pandemic.
According to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization Brookings Institution, Black women have lost more jobs amidst the pandemic because Black mothers are more than likely to be raising children in school districts with online-only reopening plans.
The organization also noted that Black mothers are more than likely less able to have a partner to share childcare responsibilities, take a pause from their employment, work from home, or outsource childcare.
Minda Harts, founder and CEO of The Memo LLC, said in an article that diversity efforts are “missing the mark.”
“It’s not enough for companies to have diversity initiatives for women when holistically most of those initiatives skew toward helping one group of women who tend to be white,” Hart said. “I believe the way we increase racial diversity is equipping our managers with the tools to manage a diverse workforce,” she says. “It’s less about having a certain number of women of color in a department, yet how is the company invested in their upward mobility?”
Harts, who removed herself from corporate America over a year ago to focus solely on her company, says that if corporate America does not boost its diversity efforts for Black women, then the Black female talent pipeline could be reduced significantly in the future.
“Many [Black women] are leaving nonprofit and corporate jobs because they aren’t having the same success as their counterparts,” she said, adding that Black women are also becoming the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs among women, having grown by more than 600% between 1997 and 2017 and an even higher percentage after the pandemic. “We hold the most degrees, and yet, we are still not represented at the highest ranks of leadership, boardrooms, and academic positions. From my research, this mass exodus is taking place because we can no longer take being invisible in the workplace and manage microaggressions and bias. If leadership doesn’t fix their leaky pipeline, I fear the future of work won’t have many of us around those tables.”
Thompkins said that Consumers wants its employees in all settings to “see, hear, and feel” DE&I’s presence and influence in all of the elements of their Consumers Energy experience.
“From hiring to retirement and every step in between we’re cultivating a happier, more engaged workforce that’s more likely to stay, and grow their careers with Consumers Energy,” she said. “This is the crux of our bold, unapologetic stand for a diverse, inclusive workplace where the ideas and contributions of all are heard and valued and everyone feels they belong.”
Thompkins added that the company plans to go beyond surface-level measures like minority and gender representation in executive ranks to a 360-degree employee experience metric.
“Our long-term goal is to measure the presence and impact of DE&I throughout an employee’s lifecycle, from hiring to retirement,” Thompkins said. “We’re striving for a future in which every employee owns DE&I for the benefit of themselves and in support of others and our company at large. While we’ll continue to make significant progress in embedding DE&I into our culture, we acknowledge there will always be work to do — and that we’re still not satisfied.”
LaNeisha Gunn, diversity recruitment and partnerships manager at Novi-based HARMAN International (headquartered in Stamford, Conn.), told the Michigan Chronicle that she has seen some progression that Black women have made in corporate America despite obstacles.
“There has been a different perception placed upon us and in the past, I have to mind what hairstyle (I) wore,” she said, adding that code-switching and “walking on eggshells” so she is not perceived as an “angry Black woman” was something she always kept in mind while on the job.
Gunn said that DEI efforts across the board have upheld important elements of inclusivity but it “still needs to be enhanced.”
Gunn added that while scores of Black women are successful and leading companies as CEOs and in the C-Suite, there is still a glass ceiling that is a “little thicker” for some Black women who are looking to move from sole contributor to executive leadership at times.
A 2021 CBS News report notes that women make up 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs, while women of color make up 1.2%.
Gunn said that in her own experiences and comparing notes with friends, colleagues, and Black female peers across industries, she found that similar stumbling blocks come up.
“We’re very, very intelligent and we do understand the battlefield we’re on,” she said. “That’s why I do see us chipping away at that double … ceiling and making progress.”